Olaf Scholz doesn't seem too tense. The Chancellor smiles, claps, nods in agreement. He sits in the front row, directly in front of the party conference stage. He shouldn't be displeased with what he hears and sees: Saskia Esken and Lars Klingbeil, the two SPD chairmen, forbid any criticism of him. Not even the new Juso boss Philipp Türmer, who is really not a fan of his, is really up to it.
Crisis, what crisis?
Friday, start of the SPD federal party conference. There is a strange atmosphere in the Berlin City Cube, demonstrative defiance instead of consternated gloom. The comrades have every reason to do so. Exactly two years ago to the day, Scholz was sworn in as chancellor and the SPD became the chancellor's party again. Since then: war and crises, constant trouble at the traffic lights, lousy poll numbers for the SPD, its chancellor in free fall in terms of voter satisfaction.
This is the critical situation in which the SPD meets for three days of self-assurance. She wants to clarify what she wants. The first thing that becomes clear is what she doesn't want: to be driven apart. Even if some visions are still formulated quite generally, the opponent is clear: Friedrich Merz. The opposition leader is omnipresent in the speeches.
The comrades demonstrate unity, the hardships bring them together. They seek to distance themselves from the opposition, not from their own top staff. Self reflection? Rather less. The differences between the party and the government: are hidden, suppressed, postponed.
The pronounced need for harmony is reflected in the speeches of the party leaders. In her speech, Saskia Esken praised the Chancellor several times for his work and listed what the SPD had achieved in the traffic light coalition. It is a tame and anemic speech, accompanied by slow and dutiful applause. Sometimes the 600 delegates don't know when or whether they should clap at all. At the end of her speech she lost her voice. Esken has a frog in his throat and clears his throat. “I hope it goes all the way to the end,” says Esken. A metaphor for the traffic lights? Cough cough.
Lars Klingbeil doesn't have much trouble inspiring his comrades. He is loudly pushing into the void left by the quiet Chancellor during the budget crisis. Klingbeil talks about the employees and the families who now need to be brought safely through the disaster - in which Scholz played no small part. He also refrains from criticizing the Chancellor, expressing it subtly at best: at one point he thanks Scholz for his cooperation, but rather in passing.
He cares about other things. It's not about whether someone drives a car, eats bratwurst or takes a plane to Malle once a year. “Let’s focus on what’s really important,” demands Klingbeil. He means: affordable rents, good wages, the best education. All issues close to the heart of the SPD. At the end of his speech the comrades stand. Martin Schulz, once head of the SPD himself, enthusiastically stretches his fingers.
In the end, the dual leadership was confirmed with good results, which was also a signal of cohesion. Klingbeil receives 85.6 percent (2021: 86.3 percent), Esken 82.6 percent (76.7 percent).
The biggest substantive controversies are cleared up, the party leadership's key proposal is approved: tax increases for the super-rich, a "one-off crisis levy" for the wealthy. Only the now securitized stance on the debt brake could still cause conflict in the SPD.
Shortly before the vote, a compromise was found with the Jusos, who had initially called for the rule to be abolished in the Basic Law. It has now been agreed to reject, roughly speaking, “rigid limits on borrowing”. The Jusos read this as an end to the debt brake. “Good bye, debt brake!” says Juso boss Türmer about the result. The broad majority of comrades, however, see this as a reform of the regulation - as the party leadership originally intended.
But the disagreement over the sovereignty of interpretation has not been resolved, at least not yet. There's time for that until the next federal election anyway. Many of the proposals simply cannot be made, especially with the liberal coalition partner, who has so far rejected tax increases and more lax debt rules.
There is something oppressive about the harmony. Everyone in the room knows that the federal government is hanging by a thread. Nobody says it. It is also likely that the growing fear of a break in the coalition is causing the Social Democrats to fall behind. In the biggest crisis, you don't want to do your opponents the favor of appearing as a divided party.
The rest of the party leadership will therefore have their backs and no one will be punished. General Secretary Kevin Kühnert, the top party strategist, received 92.55 percent of the votes (2021: 77.8 percent). The party is not making it unnecessarily difficult for itself at the start of the party conference, but it is making it easy for the Chancellor. He will address delegates on Saturday morning. Given his comrades' current need for harmony, Scholz doesn't have to worry that harsh criticism could be leveled at him.
His appearance still has great significance. On Saturday it will be up to the Chancellor to show whether this government still has a future.