Social Democrats on the road to success (who are not Olaf Scholz) – POLITICO


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BERLIN – The reputation of Olaf Scholz, the candidate for chancellor of the German Social Democrats, was sealed during his pragmatic but effective stint as mayor of Hamburg.

This Sunday, Scholz will have another pair of powerful allies in local politics to help him make his case with the country.

That’s because two former Federal Family Ministers, born on Germany’s border with Poland, are heading for crucial victories in the regional elections scheduled to coincide with the national poll on September 26. Like Scholz, they came from the SPD’s dramatic upward moderate wing.

Barring a disastrous misstep, Manuela Schwesig – some 22 points ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany locally – will be sacked to parliament from the Disney-esque palace in Schwerin as premier of the State, while Franziska Giffey – currently ahead of the Greens in the capital – is a chance – to lead Berlin’s Rotes Rathaus town hall as mayor of the city.

“Their success would also strengthen and support Olaf Scholz’s line within the SPD,” said Ursula Münch of the German Academy of Political Education.


For more survey data from across Europe, visit POLITICS Poll polls.

The prime ministers and mayors of Germany’s 16 federal regions and city-states are powerful personalities in domestic politics, able to influence national legislation through the upper house of the Bundesrat while holding broad powers at home over everything from education to transportation and healthcare.

During the pandemic, regular videoconference summits between regional leaders and Chancellor Angela Merkel on lockdown measures helped raise their profile. The debates were all the more important since it was they, and not Merkel, who had the final say on curfews and restrictions.

If Scholz becomes chancellor – pending weeks of coalition talks – partnering with Schwesig and Giffey on future calls will also boost his image.


It was not always certain that Schwesig or Giffey would run for office.

Schwesig, Minister for Families in the coalition government during Merkel’s third term between 2013 and 2017, decided to step down as leader of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 2019 as she sought treatment for breast cancer.

Today, support for Schwesig’s local party stands at 38%, according to the electoral follow-up of the POLITICO poll, allaying fears that the big two Volkspartei could never again get the kind of overwhelming opposition support they once enjoyed in key strongholds.

Meanwhile, Giffey spent his final months as federal Minister of Families combating plagiarism allegations on his doctoral thesis, before stepping down from his post in May this year. But she survived the fallout to become the favorite of Berlin’s next mayor, a post previously held by party pillar Willy Brandt in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The two women benefited from a nationwide turnaround in SPD fortunes this summer.

At the end of last year, the Christian Democrats voted neck and neck with the SPD in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, while in early summer 2021, the Greens were seven points ahead of the Social Democrats in Berlin.

The party’s sudden rebound nationally and in the two local campaigns is due to voters looking for “pragmatic” options during times of upheaval, Giffey told POLITICO during the election campaign this month.

“When you look at last year we had 14% and now we have 25%. [nationally] so something has happened in the meantime, ”Giffey said, speaking outside a Russian supermarket in Berlin’s suburban Marzahn neighborhood.

“I am really convinced that a lot of people want to have a pragmatic political orientation, and not an ideological political orientation,” she said, referring to the decades-old struggle between the two main factions of the SPD.

This is a diagnosis shared by many Social Democrats who align themselves with Scholz, and it is a blow to the party leadership, which is veering firmly to the left.

Scholz lost a party leadership race in 2019, but struck a deal with the winning duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken to run as the SPD chancellor candidate. This is because many party members wanted to promote stability in the first German elections without incumbent chancellor after Merkel left.

“People don’t want to take risks,” said Bettina Martin, Minister of Education for Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and a close ally of Schwesig since her days as Federal Minister for Families. “People vote for the person and the party they trust, that’s the mechanism of the moment.”

The crucial question now is whether big victories in Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern will strengthen Scholz’s authority, if he was able to strike a coalition deal after Sunday’s elections.

There is also the prospect of seeing the two regional leaders move back to the federal level, echoing the trajectory of Scholz himself, who was Minister of Labor in the late 2000s before becoming regional prime minister.

“After all, Scholz himself came back [to federal politics] after being mayor of Hamburg, ”said Thorsten Faas, professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin. “Especially politicians who were once active at the federal level naturally know very well how much more is possible there.”

Nette Nöstlinger and Merlin Sugue contributed reporting.

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