Federal party conference: The SPD pulls itself together – can the traffic lights do that too?

Federal party conference: The SPD pulls itself together – can the traffic lights do that too?

Where is the outlet for frustration? That was the central question before the party conference of an ailing SPD. After three days the answer is: There was no valve. The party has rallied behind its chancellor.

The SPD party conference couldn’t have gone much better for Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the party leadership. Despite disastrous poll numbers, the 600 delegates strengthened their leadership trio of chairmen Saskia Esken and Lars Klingbeil as well as Secretary General Kevin Kühnert with solid election results. The Chancellor was celebrated for a combative speech that hardly anyone would have believed him capable of. And the Jusos rebels remained tame and made a belly landing with applications against the EU asylum policy.

The largest government party, the SPD, which now ranks in the polls as the third strongest party with 14 to 17 percent, far behind the CDU/CSU and AfD, has closed ranks and rallied behind its chancellor. But he now has an even more difficult mission to succeed: closing the 17 billion hole in the budget for 2024 and financing major projects to modernize the economy. The fate of the traffic light government depends on the outcome of its negotiations with Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck (Greens).

Two lessons: Chancellor can talk – SPD can pull itself together

There are two things that surprised many people at this party conference: the combative appearance of the Chancellor and the discipline of the delegates. “He’s just not a good speaker.” This is one of the most common sentences about Olaf Scholz. He often clings to his text, rattling off what has already been said many times, without emotion. His government statement on the budget crisis in the Bundestag is considered one of the worst speeches of his time in office.

At the party conference, Scholz shows that there is another way. 51 minutes without manuscript. He caresses the party’s soul by ruling out dismantling the welfare state and calls for unity: “We have to stick together and have a clear course.”

Almost five minutes of standing applause were thanked by the delegates. “It touched our hearts, honestly touched our hearts,” said party leader Esken afterward, enthusing about the speech. The SPD had already shown during the re-election of the party leadership that it did not want to react to lost state elections, poor poll numbers and the budget crisis with a riot, but instead wanted to pull itself together. Esken and Kühnert were even able to significantly improve their results.

The new Juso boss Philipp Türmer is one of the few who approaches Scholz – but moderately. “Dear Olaf, if you want to get out of the defense, you have to play attack,” he demands. “You are the head of the government, not Robert and Christian’s couples therapist,” he says, referring to Habeck and Lindner. When it comes to the controversial issue of migration, the Jusos fail with applications against the EU asylum reform, for the abolition of the European border protection agency Frontex and for a stop to deportations to Iraq.

The FDP is there behind the scenes

But there is also a third dimension of the party conference that takes place behind the scenes, in the numerous conversations on the sidelines. A main topic: What is the FDP doing? Is there a risk that their party leader will lose his nerve and quit?

Lindner demonstrated in 2017 that he can be very rigorous in the negotiations over a Jamaica coalition with the CDU/CSU and the Greens. “It is better not to govern than to govern incorrectly.” This sentence from the long-time FDP leader has gone down in the history of German parliamentarism and is well remembered by all traffic light coalition members.

Discussion about turning off traffic lights shows mistrust in the government

The fact that there is quite blatant speculation in the SPD about the FDP leaving the coalition shows how great the mistrust is after two years full of arguments and tough unification processes. The main argument against ending the traffic lights is the rather disastrous situation of all three partners.

According to current surveys, the SPD, Greens and FDP together only get 33 to 38 percent. In 2021 they were elected with a combined 52 percent of the vote. Who can want new elections now? Especially since the FDP would have to worry about returning to the Bundestag. FDP Transport Minister Volker Wissing did not give any fuel to the speculation. “The FDP wants to shape this country,” he replied in the ARD “Report from Berlin”. And when asked whether he was also in the government, he said: “Absolutely.”

Hopp or great: everything depends on the debt brake

There is now a central question in the budget negotiations that everything is coming to a head: Will the traffic light once again suspend the debt brake in order to take out additional loans, or not? The SPD definitely wants this and made a corresponding resolution at the party conference, but it is not so harsh that it takes away the Chancellor’s room for maneuver in negotiations.

The FDP does not want the suspension. However, Lindner responded to the SPD party conference with a comment that was seen as a hopeful sign by the Social Democrats. “In spite of everything that we still have to solve and can do, I can only agree with Olaf Scholz on one thing in particular: Supporting Ukraine is an investment in our security,” wrote the FDP leader on Saturday on X (formerly Twitter ). “We stand by this shared responsibility in difficult times.”

There are two messages hidden there: The war in Ukraine would be the main justification if the coalition were to declare an emergency to suspend the debt brake. The fact that Lindner mentions this point can be a signal. He also says that a solution is possible and that the traffic lights must take joint responsibility. No one else from the FDP was sent forward at the weekend to counter the SPD decisions. One could have imagined it differently.

Without an agreement before Christmas, the traffic lights are in jeopardy

The traffic light now has two weeks left to reach at least a basic political agreement on the budget. If that doesn’t work by Christmas, the coalition will be on the rocks. But no one wants to paint this scenario on the wall, at least publicly. “We are not faced with an unsolvable task. Everyone now just needs to come to an agreement,” says Scholz.

Source: Stern

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