Social Democratic Party of Germany

For the most part, the modern SPD corresponds most closely to the Clinton Democrats. In its role as junior partner in the Grand Coalition, the SPD has been pretty much dwarfed by Merkel's CDU, and the Social Democrats seem to have sustained long-term damage as a result. The Grand Coalition was unlikely to be revived: The SPD was unhappy in the role of junior partner and won't want to take it on for another term. It is sensible that the SPD made it immediately clear it would join the opposition. It is the only way for the party to rebuild and develop a new strategy for the future. It also prevents the AfD from becoming the Bundestag's leading opposition party.

From 1998 to 2005, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder realigned what had historically been a working class party with strong trade union ties toward the amorphous political center, chiefly by passing reforms that cut state benefits programs in favor of fiscal solidity. When he narrowly lost the 2005 election to Merkel, the SPD looked more than a little lost itself.

Martin Schulz replaced Sigmar Gabriel at the head of the the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) 25 January 2017. By naming former EU Parliament President Martin Schulz to run against Angela Merkel for chancellorship, the Social Democrats were back in the game. Martin Schulz, the new chancellor candidate, is someone who is able to match Merkel in terms of popularity. With the SPD mired at around 20 percent support in beginning of 2017 polls, that looked like a lost battle. Schulz comes closer to her as a rival for the chancellorship than any other Social Democrat in the last decade. In a prominent poll head-to-head with Merkel, commissioned by "Bild" newspaper at the beginning of the year, Schulz trailed the chancellor by only a single percentage point, 39 to 38.

In elevating Schulz to the top spot, the party is essentially doubling down on its support for a strong European Union. One thing was unchanged: a firm commitment to Europe. Among the parties represented in the federal parliament in Berlin, there was no room for the nationalism that is growing in parts of Europe and the world - not even in an election year. There would shortly be a Social Democrat as president: Frank-Walter Steinmeier, long-time foreign minister, but no great orator. Yet he was someone the German people trust - he had been out front in popularity in the polls for years. In Germany, foreign ministers are traditionally frontrunners in popularity.

Since being made party leader, Schulz has lifted the SPD from its doldrums in the polls. The lone setback was last month's defeat by Merkel's CDU in a local state election in Saarland. Many observers put that loss down to voters rejecting the idea that the SPD could govern together with the Left, the successor to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the communist former East Germany. The CDU ruled out working with the Left. Schulz steadfastly refused to say anything about possible coalitions other than that his aim was to attract the most votes and then invite others to talk to him.


Founded in 1875, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands--SPD) is Germany's oldest political party and its largest in terms of membership. In the Weimar Republic the right had been nationalist and the left internationalist. In West Germany it was a different story: the center right camp under the first Federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer stood for a policy of alignment with the West and the supranational integration of western Europe; the moderate left, the Social Democrats under their first post-War Chairman Kurt Schumacher and his successor Erich Ollenhauer, gave themselves a decidedly national profile by favoring reunification ahead of integration in the West.

After World War II, under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher, the SPD reestablished itself as an ideological party, representing the interests of the working class and the trade unions. The party's program, which espoused Marxist principles, called for the nationalization of major industries and state planning. A strong nationalist, Schumacher rejected Adenauer's Western-oriented foreign policy and gave priority to unifying Germany, even if that meant accommodating Soviet demands. Despite the SPD's membership of almost 1 million in 1949, it was unable to dent Adenauer's popularity. Schumacher's death in 1952 and a string of electoral defeats led the SPD to rethink its platform in order to attract more votes.

The Bad Godesburg Program, a radical change in policy, was announced at the SPD's 1959 party conference. The new program meant abandoning the party's socialist economic principles and adopting the principles of the social market economy. The party also dropped its opposition to West German membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Like the CDU, the SPD was becoming a catchall party (Volkspartei ) -- albeit of the left.

It was not until 1960 that the SPD accepted the basis of the West Treaties, which in 1955 had enabled West Germany to join NATO. The Social Democrats had to make this step if they were to assume governmental responsibility in West Germany. Only on the basis of the West Treaties were they able, in 1966, to become a junior partner in the Grand Coalition and three years later, under the first Social Democrat Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt, begin the "new Ostpolitik" that enabled West Germany to make a contribution to easing tension between West and East, to put relations with Poland on a new footing by the recognition (even if completely unconditionally de jure) of the Oder-Neisse line and to enter into a contractually regulated relationship with East Germany.

Introduction of the Bad Godesberg Program, together with the emergence of a dynamic leader in the person of Willy Brandt, marked the beginning of improved fortunes for the SPD. Although the party gained support from election to election, suspicion about its ability to govern persisted. Joining the CDU/CSU in the Grand Coalition in November 1966 proved critical in erasing doubts among voters about SPD reliability. After the 1969 election, the FDP decided to form a coalition with the SPD--a governing configuration that held until 1982.

Brandt served as chancellor from 1969 to 1974. His most notable achievements were in foreign policy. Brandt and his key aide, Egon Bahr, put into place an entirely new approach to the East--Ostpolitik--premised upon accepting the reality of postwar geopolitical divisions and giving priority to reconciliation with Eastern Europe. Brandt addressed long-standing disputes with the Soviet Union and Poland, signing landmark treaties with both countries in 1970. His efforts won him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1971. The Brandt government also negotiated the Basic Treaty with East Germany in 1972, which formally granted recognition to the GDR. On the domestic side, the SPD-FDP coalition succeeded in almost doubling social spending between 1969 and 1975.

Helmut Schmidt succeeded Brandt as chancellor in 1974. Although Schmidt won a reputation as a highly effective leader, the SPD experienced increasingly trying times. The oil crises of the 1970s undermined economic growth globally, and West Germany experienced economic stagnation and inflation. A critical problem for the SPD-FDP coalition government was a difference in opinion over the appropriate response to these problems. Divisions over economic policy were exacerbated by a debate within the party over defense policy and the stationing of United States intermediate nuclear forces in West Germany in the early 1980s. In 1982 the Free Democrats decided to abandon the coalition with the SPD and allied themselves with the CDU/CSU, forcing the SPD out of power. Schmidt, although regarded as a statesman abroad and an effective leader at home, became increasingly isolated within his own party, and he chose not to campaign as the SPD chancellor candidate in the March 1983 elections. Hans-Jochen Vogel was the SPD standard-bearer in that election, and the party suffered a serious loss.

The SPD has been wrought by internal crises since the late 1970s, and these divisions have continued into the 1990s. The party is split into two factions, one giving priority to economic and social justice, egalitarianism, and environmental protection, and the other most concerned with controlling inflation, encouraging fiscal responsibility, and playing a significant part in the European security system. The SPD faces a challenge on the left from the Greens and on the right from the CDU/CSU and the FDP. Rather than move to the left, the SPD chose a centrist strategy in the 1987 national election and earned only a small increase in voter support.

In 1990 the nomination of Oskar Lafontaine as chancellor candidate suggested a tactical shift to the left aimed at attracting liberal, middle-class voters. The national election in December 1990 became, in essence, a referendum on unification, and the CDU's Kohl, who had endorsed a speedy union, far outstripped the more ambivalent and pessimistic Lafontaine in the polls. The SPD did not receive the support it had expected in the heavily Protestant eastern Länder. Leadership of the SPD passed to Björn Engholm, a moderate, who resigned in May 1993 in the wake of a political scandal.

Rudolf Scharping, the moderate and relatively unknown minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate, was elected by SPD members--the first time in the history of the party that its members directly chose a new leader--to replace Engholm in late June 1993. Scharping opposed Kohl in the 1994 national election. The SPD candidate began 1994 with a strong lead in public opinion polls, but, beginning in late April, the SPD's support began a sustained decline for several reasons. For one, the increasingly positive economic situation was credited to the governing coalition. For another, Scharping was perceived by many Germans to be a lackluster candidate; further, he was not wholly successful in portraying himself as the conciliator who had brought harmony to a traditionally fractious SPD. Following the election, Scharping became the leader of the SPD's parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

When the SPD returned to power in 1998 under Gerhard Schroeder, it embraced neoliberalism and the genuinely socialist Finance Minister ‘Red’ Oskar Lafontaine - labelled ‘Europe’s most dangerous man’ by the British Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid the Sun - was sacked after less than five months in the job as he upset too many powerful people.

The SPD was in government with the CDU/CSU in a ‘Grand coalition’ since 2013 and although they blocked some policies such as plans to sell Germany’s state railway, as well as helping to get the country’s first ever minimum wage introduced, some thought Germany would still have been best served if the Social Democrats had fiercely opposed Merkel and not decided to work with her.

The organizational structure of the SPD is highly centralized, with decisions made in a top-down, bureaucratic fashion. Technically, the SPD's highest authority is the party congress, which meets biannually. Arguably, its only significant function is to elect the thirty-six-member Executive Committee, which serves as the SPD's primary executive body and its policy maker. The members of the Executive Committee typically represent the various political factions within the party. The core of the Executive Committee is the nine-member Presidium, which represents the inner circle of party officials and is generally composed of the party leadership. The Presidium meets weekly to conduct the business of the party, deal with budgetary issues, and handle administrative and campaign matters. The Presidium is also responsible for endorsing policy originating either with an SPD government or with the leadership of the parliamentary Fraktion when the party is in opposition. In almost all cases, decisions made in the Presidium are ratified by the Federal Executive and the party congress.

All SPD organizations below the national level elect their own party officials. The district, subdistrict, and local levels are all subordinate to the Land executive committees, which direct party policy below the national level and are relatively independent of the federal party officials. Like the CDU/CSU, the SPD maintains specialized groups representing particular professions, youth, women, trade unions, refugees, and sports interests. In the case of the SPD, these groups are closely tied to the SPD bureaucracy, and only the Young Socialists and the trade union group have policy-making roles.

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