D.he SPD is used to grief. In Saxony-Anhalt anyway. That is why the comments of the party leadership on early Sunday evening sound cautious, not desperate: “Not a nice result”, admits Secretary General Lars Klingbeil. The party chairman Norbert Walter-Borjans tries to see the good. The democratic forces prevailed, he says in the Willy Brandt House. Saskia Esken, also chairwoman, stands next to him and praises the fact that the comrades’ election campaign was thematically strong.
The SPD had not prepared itself for great feelings on the evening of the election. Not to shocking despair, not to jubilation. Whether you consider this to be an acceptable state of affairs depends on your perspective. In any case, the evening in March 2016 when the SPD imploded in Saxony-Anhalt was more dramatic. It was a state election and the Social Democrats lost more than half of their seats in parliament. Lucky for the then federal chairman Sigmar Gabriel that he had to comment on not only this one, but two other state elections the next day. Among them was the one in Rhineland-Palatinate, in which the SPD was victorious in the person of Malu Dreyer. Gabriel was delighted that this showed that his party could still win elections. At that time, he explained the Magdeburg debacle with populism in the east. It didn’t sound like he knew the right therapy for this diagnosis.
The populists stayed. And the SPD also stayed, even if it was even more dwarfed. That it did not halve again on Sunday in Saxony-Anhalt was a condition for it to continue to exist. The SPD hadn’t dreamed of much more than that. Before the election, many comrades saw a double-digit result as a reason to be happy, and initial projections do not see this as fulfilled either. The SPD is therefore around eight percent.
Confident appearance with measly numbers
Popular parties are expected to be closer to an absolute majority than to single-mindedness. The SPD knows that. Its chairman Norbert Walter-Borjans is not just now claiming that his party must be a “modern people’s party”, which on the one hand suggests that it has to change, on the other hand it keeps silent about how. Even if the SPD leadership knew the answer, there would hardly be time to change much before the federal election in autumn. Nationwide, too, the party is only 15 percent in surveys. The Federal SPD should try to cover up the comparatively measly numbers with the self-confident demeanor of those who know that they may not be the most successful, but that they are still needed.
And in fact the SPD is involved in the government, both in Berlin and in Saxony-Anhalt. In Magdeburg she was previously part of the coalition of Prime Minister Reiner Haseloff, as a sandwich insert between the larger CDU and the smaller Greens. In the election campaign, this rather unfavorable position had led to the curious strategy that the SPD pretended to compete against the rulers even though it was one of them. Which in turn followed an internal logic. Because according to a survey, only a third of voters in Saxony-Anhalt knew the top candidate of the SPD, Katja Pähle. As the leader of the parliamentary group, Pähle led her troops in the state parliament, but it did not make everyone known.
The burden of the top candidate is growing
Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrats’ top candidate for the federal election, is in a better position. He traveled to Pehle to help close the election campaign and pleaded for a minimum wage of twelve euros. A classic attempt to win the hearts of workers. But not very successful. SPD campaigners were asked about the Hartz IV reforms or rather complained about more often than about a higher minimum wage. Pehle has no choice but to hope that things will not go on like before. The Prime Minister has already indicated that he is ready to continue the Kenya coalition. Pehle would have preferred red-red-green, but this constellation is as far removed from a majority as Magdeburg is from Marseille.
The burden that Chancellor candidate Scholz is carrying weighs even heavier. On Sunday evening, Saskia Esken said that Scholz had very good approval ratings because he stood for the SPD’s program. Does that mean that Pehle did not stand for it in Saxony-Anhalt? Or that the SPD’s program is only compatible with 15 percent of Germans? Esken hardly means it that way. Her sentence speaks helplessness about what the SPD can still do, except to put Scholz in the shop window, where he is already standing.