German SPD Elects First Woman Leader as Divisions Linger

(Bloomberg) -- Germany’s Social Democrats elected the party’s first ever chairwoman, but struggled to heal divisions that span everything from Russia and the European Union to government spending.

Andrea Nahles, 47, was backed by 66 percent of delegates at a conference in the western city of Wiesbaden, a relatively poor showing for a leader meant to revive a party that posted its worst result since World War II in last year’s election. More than a quarter of the delegates cast a ballot for an insurgent candidate who had been given no chance to win.

“We’ve made a start to a renewal -- and we’ve heard differing voices on what that should look like,’’ Nahles said Sunday after the vote. Party unity “still needs to be built upon, and that’s what I’ll work on.’’

The result lays bare the SPD’s uphill task in challenging Chancellor Angela Merkel’s bloc should the German leader exit the political scene by the 2021 election. After the SPD’s tortuous decision to be Merkel’s junior coalition partner for the third time since 2005, Nahles has pledged to be an uncomfortable ally over the next four years.

“The new leadership will have to earn the party’s trust rather than being able to build on a huge show of confidence in advance,” said Carsten Nickel, a Brussels-based analyst at political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence. There is a “deep feeling of insecurity inside the party,” he said.

Party Differences

Nahles succeeds Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president who led the losing campaign last year and resigned in February amid a party revolt over his failed bid to become foreign minister. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new finance minister, has been serving as interim leader.

Nahles’s challenger for the SPD leadership, Simone Lange, the 41-year-old mayor of Flensburg on the Danish border, drew applause by blasting Scholz’s adherence to the balanced-budget policy of his predecessor, Wolfgang Schaeuble.

“A balanced budget can never be at the core of Social Democratic policy,” Lange said. She told the delegates that she represented the “real renewal of the SPD.”

In her candidacy speech before her election, Nahles sought to defuse differences over Russia. At a closed-door meeting on Saturday, several top party officials criticized Heiko Maas, the SPD’s new foreign minister, for taking too hard a line on Russia, according to Die Welt newspaper.

European Vision

“The relationships with both Russia and the U.S. have to be cultivated, but viewed realistically,” Nahles said, including addressing the Kremlin’s actions. “But unlike what I’ve read in the past few days, this doesn’t mean in any way a retreat from the policy of dialogue with Russia.”

Nahles also attempted to reassure pro-EU delegates that the SPD will push forward with reforms of the 28-member bloc that were negotiated in the Europe chapter of the coalition accord. She criticized Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc for putting the brakes on a raft of proposals.

“No week goes by in which a highly positioned CDU politician doesn’t try to distance itself from it,” Nahles said. “An agreement is an agreement. We will implement this chapter letter for letter.”

Scholz, who during a trip to Washington laid out conditions for banking-deposit insurance across the euro zone, embraced a European vision in Wiesbaden. The EU “has to be the central project of our generation,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.