The Job Nobody Wants: Merkel’s Coalition Partner Seeks a Leader
(Bloomberg) -- As Germany’s second-biggest party begins the search for a new leader, many of the most likely candidates are taking themselves out of the race.
The demise of Andrea Nahles after just over a year as Social Democratic leader offers a vivid demonstration of the pitfalls of leading a party beset by vicious infighting as it spirals in the polls.
With Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government in the balance, her junior partner has given itself a few months to select a new leader. It also faces a “halftime” decision this fall on whether it wants to stay in a government that many in the base view as a poison chalice.
For now, the Social Democrats have chosen three regional leaders to run the party on an interim basis: Manuela Schwesig, Malu Dreyer and Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel. All three said they won’t go for the leadership. Two other top contenders -- Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Lower Saxony premier Stephan Weil -- say they also won’t throw their hats in the ring.
Here are some of the people who will help decide whether the Social Democrats stay or leave government, and who could still end up running the party.
Stephan Weil leads the government in Lower Saxony, home to Volkswagen AG. Popular in the northern state of 8 million, he led the party to victory over the CDU in 2017, only weeks after the SPD’s devastating losses in the national election. At age 60, he’s considered a grandee in a state that’s home to the SPD’s last chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder. He appeared to rule out the top job, however, telling NDR Sunday: “I am and remain terribly happy as premier from Lower Saxony and have no other ambitions.”
Manuela Schwesig became state leader in the Baltic coast state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2017 after serving four years as Merkel’s family minister in the previous cabinet with the SPD. At 45, Schwesig has been a youthful public face of the SPD, serving as an anti-Merkel of sorts, having spent her youth in communist East Germany. As one of the interim triumvirate, she’s ruled herself out -- even as the party faces three regional elections in the east this fall.
Olaf Scholz was a popular mayor of Hamburg, governing with an absolute majority. Since he’s been Merkel’s finance minister, he’s viewed with suspicion among the progressive party base. As the SPD’s public face of fiscal discipline, he’s alienated many on the party’s left. He’s also ruled out a run for the chairmanship, saying his job as finance minister and vice chancellor takes up enough of his time.
Kevin Kuehnert, the 29-year-old leader of the SPD’s youth organization, is a long shot. Last month he made a splash by calling for public takeovers of large companies such as BMW AG, telling Die Zeit that the “distribution of profits must be democratically controlled.” After the 2017 election, he led the campaign in the party’s progressive base to reject a coalition with Merkel at all costs. He was overruled by a membership ballot, but he still has supporters. If the party goes for a dramatic lurch to the left, Kuehnert would be on the list.
Malu Dreyer is highly popular and garnered an impressive 36% of the vote in 2016 to win a second term as state premier in Germany’s western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, beating out a rising CDU start and Merkel disciple, Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner. She’s viewed as less likely to stay in Berlin, however. Dreyer, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and frequently uses a wheelchair, is in the interim trio pledging to stay out of the race.
Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel, the third in the triumvirate, is the least likely to climb the pecking order. The head of the SPD in Hesse, TSG, as he’s known in the party, failed to translate his personal popularity into political fortunes, losing to the CDU in Hesse last October -- the bruising contest that prompted Merkel to surrender her party leadership. He’s announced he’s leaving party politics behind later this year.
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