The Former Parcel Courier Who Could Bring Down Angela Merkel
(Bloomberg) -- Saskia Esken entered a December meeting with her Social Democratic caucus in the glass-domed Reichstag holding the future of Angela Merkel’s government in her hand.
The little-known former parcel carrier-turned-politician had days earlier been propelled to the top of Germany’s oldest party on a pledge to do whatever it took to reverse dismal election results. In the spacious third-floor conference room of the refurbished neo-Renaissance-style parliament building, the 58-year-old college dropout faced the old guard.
According to one person in the room, the party veterans warned her not to break with conservative allies. The left-wing hardliner looked at them sternly and said she would give Merkel’s grand coalition a last chance. Instead of leaving, she would wrest concessions for greater investment and better wages.
She was met with mute applause.
Many of the comrades, as party members call each other, had doubts over her real intentions and her ability to negotiate. Indeed, Esken is the wild card in the political survival of Merkel and the party itself.
Driven by her own working-class background, Esken is seen as ideologically-driven and headstrong but lacking leadership experience and allies, according to people who know her or have worked with her.
After the meeting with her lawmakers, Esken told Bloomberg News that everything had gone well and that the atmosphere had been good. But opinions on her vary.
“We haven’t been enthusiastic about the new leadership. It would be a lie to deny that”, says Carsten Schneider, deputy leader of the parliamentary group that Esken belongs to.
In some ways Esken is the antithesis of the stale and stuffy image the party leadership had won over the years and that many members blamed for the party’s demise. Nearly two decades ago the SPD was the No.1 political force with more than 40% support. Today, it’s a distant fourth with less than 15%.
Certainly the demise of the party mirrors that of Social Democrats elsewhere in Europe that have struggled with the rise of populists and Greens. But Esken and her supporters claim that it’s the alliance with Merkel’s conservatives that blurred the party’s profile and accelerated its decline.
Today she goes out of her way to highlight her working-class background as an example of the party’s return to its roots.
Esken worked as a chauffeur and barwoman before she turned to programming software, Esken’s raison d’etre centers around issues of social mobility and economic justice. She blasts cut-throat competition for undermining solidarity and advocates higher taxes for the wealthy. One of her main issues is a proposal to hike the minimum wage by at least 30% to 12 euros per hour.
“Today I’m a lawmaker but I haven’t forgotten where I’ve come from. I know the living conditions of the people for whom we do politics,” she told hundreds of delegates at the party convention.
Yet even within her own party, many politicians question whether she has the wherewithal to extract concessions from Merkel and turn around her party. Her leadership experience, she has said, is limited to being No. 2 at a parent group in her home state.
To be sure, some of the opposition she faces comes from SPD lawmakers worried they could lose their jobs if she pulls out of the coalition and eventually triggers snap elections. Still, other than an endorsement from the Young Socialists, she has no real network and few allies within her ranks, party members say, and has yet to impose her authority.
In the two weeks since she was confirmed as party leader, Esken has sought to reassure coalition partners by saying she wouldn’t do anything to destabilize the government. But at the same time she has kept alive the threat that the SPD could still jump ship.
When a special committee of coalition partners met last week to negotiate tougher climate measures, one of the key demands of the Esken-led team, Esken herself was noticeably absent. Instead, it was Finance Minister Olaf Scholz who attended a group of representatives from the SPD.
Scholz, who lost to Esken with his bid to become party chief, has no intention to follow orders from her but will do what he can to keep the grand coalition together, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
All that doesn’t bode well for the new leaders of the Social Democrats, who were already mocked by Merkel allies for their radical demands that include giving up the country’s famed zero deficit spending.
“Esken faces the dilemma of either disappointing the base that elected her and she’s identified with, or to torpedo the government,” said Wichard Woyke, professor of politics at the University of Muenster. “Whatever she does, she’s bound to fail because it will bring the party down.”
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.