How the SPD counted on young rebels in northeast Germany | World news
L.Just four years ago, Erik von Malottki’s main goal was to keep the party he loved as far away from political power as possible. Inspired by young activist grassroots movements in the USA and Great Britain, the trade unionist was one of a group of young SPD members who in January 2018 called on delegates to vote against another coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
But this week the now 35-year-old and a group of similarly old delegates drove the German center-left party to an unlikely election victory. While the British Labor Party remains rooted in factionalism, the SPD has constructively channeled the energy of its youthful rebels and led the way in the vote on Sunday with a seismic shift in the north-east of the country.
The victory was close, the SPD was just 1.6 percentage points ahead of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of the outgoing Chancellor Merkel. Whether your boss Olaf Scholz will also be Germany’s next Federal Chancellor depends on complicated coalition talks in the coming weeks.
But in the two northernmost federal states of the former socialist East, the triumph of the SPD was extensive: In Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the party won a direct CDU mandate in each of the 16 constituencies, all but one of which were previously held by the SPD.
The electoral district of Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I celebrated its most symbolic victory, where Anna Kassautzki, born in 1993, has held a direct mandate from none other than Merkel since 1990.
In the simultaneous state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the Social Democrats emerged victorious with almost 40% of the vote, nine percentage points more than in 2016.
A closer look at the electoral history of the region shows how remarkable the turning point was. While Mecklenburg, the western region of the country, has a history of tipping to the left, Western Pomerania on the Baltic Sea was a conservative stronghold – also because the CDU was able to inherit the Berlin Wall after the fall of the socialist East German party structure (the SPD, on the other hand, was banned under the socialist regime ).
In Erik von Malottki’s constituency, Mecklenburg Lake District I – Vorpommern-Greifswald II, the CDU and the left-wing radical Die Linke used to fight for first place. This year, a close race between the CDU and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) was to be expected.
“When we voted for our candidates a year ago, nobody expected that we would win here,” said Patrick Dahlemann, a 33-year-old member of the state parliament and one of the contributors to the upturn in the SPD. “To be honest, three weeks ago we wouldn’t even have dared to dream.” But in the early hours of Monday morning von Malottki stormed from fourth to top position, 796 votes ahead of the AfD candidate.
Much of the SPD’s popularity here is due to the party’s nationwide election campaign. The center-left’s promise to raise the minimum wage to € 12 an hour was dismissed as hypocrisy by its opponents, but in the structurally weaker regions of the northeast and the Ruhr area it made voters listen: 60% of workers in the Von Malottki constituency receive low wages. “For the people here, the new minimum wage would be an absolute game changer,” he said.
The promise of the monosyllabic Nordic Olaf Scholz, who was better known in the Baltic lowlands than the jovial Rhinelander Armin Laschet, had credibility. Had the anti-coalition fighters succeeded in pushing the SPD into the opposition in 2018, they would probably have had less. “Scholz would never have been such a driving force for us if he hadn’t been finance minister for the last four years,” said Dahlemann.
But even at the local level, Scholz’s promise would not have been enforced with the same energy without the youthful rebels of the Social Democrats. After failing to prevent their party from joining another “grand coalition”, they celebrated a totemic victory in November 2019 when Scholz lost the party leadership to the left-wing Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans.
What seemed like a surprise at the time, created a balance that enabled young members like von Malottki to get involved in Scholz’s candidacy: “We knew that they would be at the table in coalition talks.” The younger candidates awarded on site the statesmanlike appeal by Scholz a touch of populist aggression.
The infrastructure problems in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are visible to everyone: trains cross the region from time to time, ticket halls at smaller train stations have stood still for decades. Despite local campaigns, the Karnin lift bridge over the Peene Estuary has been dying since it was destroyed by the Nazis to stop the advance of the Red Army in 1945.
The young SPD candidates quickly blamed the Federal Ministry of Transport, which has been run by the Bavarian CSU since 2009. “In Bavaria you build motorways without end,” said von Malottki. His party has pledged to build a needs-based bus network in regions that are cut off from local public transport.
During the pandemic embroiled in numerous corruption scandals, Merkel’s conservatives did their part to pretend to be a power-drunk party: the lavish rise of the 28-year-old CDU local candidate Philipp Amthor was last year because of his lobbying for a US IT company.
The SPD identified a crack in the armaments of the Christian Democrats. Von Malottki signed a pledge to donate any additional income to charity. He started using the hashtag #unbribable on his Twitter and Instagram channels. It was precisely because his chances of winning looked so slim that the voters believed him.
“Neither of us decided to run because we had a career in mind,” says von Malottki, whose father is a forester and whose mother works at the post-reunification agency that is supposed to open the Stasi files to the public. “We are all idealists. I was expecting to lose, so at least I wanted to start a campaign that people would use to remember me. “
The SPD may have painted the northeast red, but its victory remains fragile. In several constituencies, the AfD took just second place – in some, it increased its share of the vote.
The center-left has won the fight by taking on material issues like wages with the AfD, but has barely led the fight to the right on cultural issues like immigration or gender politics. If it fails to implement its ideals in government, the northeast could eventually be flooded with the bright blue of the populist right.
“We have only just recovered from the Schröder years,” said von Malottki. “If we don’t keep our promises, all of our profits will be gone in four years.”