The Future of Germany's Social Democrats

Out of Government, Into the Wilderness?

Removing an election campaign billboard showing Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz, Berlin, September 2017. Christian Mang / REUTERS

Germany has voted, and Chancellor Angela Merkel once again stands ready to form the country’s next government. But her Christian Democratic Union has taken a hit. Together with its sister party, the Christian Social Union, the CDU will control only 246 seats in Germany’s parliament, compared to the 309 it held before the election.

The most dramatic outcome of the election was the unprecedented entry into parliament of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Yet the hollowing out of Germany’s political center could also prove consequential. The center-left Social Democratic Party, led by Merkel’s main challenger, Martin Schulz, took 20.5 percent of the vote—its the worst result since 1945. On Sunday, Schulz called the election a “bitter day” and pledged to lead his party into opposition.

Merkel now has two unprecedented choices. She can attempt to forge a minority government or she can try to form an coalition with two smaller groups, the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party, the latter of which has returned to parliament after a four-year absence.

Tough choices lie ahead for Germany’s Social Democrats, too. After years of centrism in a grand coalition, they will have to face the fact that many workers have turned their back on what was once a workers’ party. Although going into the opposition might be part of the answer to this problem, this in itself is unlikely to guarantee the party’s survival.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the CDU's headquarters in Berlin, September 2017.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the CDU's headquarters in Berlin, September 2017. Kai Pfaffenbach / REUTERS


Sunday’s performance must weigh heavily on the SPD. Its attempts to successfully challenge Merkel have failed for a third time. (Its previous efforts in 2009 and 2013 similarly brought historic defeats.) The 2017 election has become part of this bitter trend—a far cry from the days when the Social Democratic Chancellors Helmut Schmidt, Willy Brandt, and Gerhard Schröder captured the German electorate with landslide victories.

Many voters watched the German election campaign with indifference. For the

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