German voters will go to the polls on 24 September for federal elections. But what do the country’s parties want? What are the possible coalitions? And who has the best campaign strategy to sell their proposals to the electorate? In the second of a series of articles analysing each of the main parties’ campaign pledges, Julian Göpffarth assesses the programme of the German Social Democrats (SPD).

Martin Schulz, Credit: PES/ Eric Vidal (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For most observers, the battle for Bundeskanzler is already decided. Many Germans still struggle to explain Martin Schulz’s surprising surge in the polls at the beginning of this year and his equally surprising fall. Even if the SPD has been desperately trying to inverse the trend by proposing a plethora of concrete projects, current polls suggest efforts are in vain. The SPD’s attacks on Merkel have not altered the respective parties’ positions in the polls. The social democrats are stagnating between 23 and 25 per cent while the CDU/CSU is peaking at 40 per cent in some polls.

Unlike the CDU, the SPD adopted its 116 pages strong programme at a party congress. In order to deliver on a “more socially just Germany”, the programme focusses on a wider distribution of the tax burden, a stabilisation of the pension level, more support for families as well as medium and low incomes, higher public investments and a more social and democratic EU. Since the programme’s adoption in late June, Schulz has attempted to present some core propositions in a more concise way almost on a weekly basis. Even if Schulz has never been part of any government, the main challenge of the SPD is to present new ideas on how an SPD-led administration would be different without discrediting its own record of almost twenty years of government. As a consequence, the programme includes more concrete ideas than the CDU/CSU programme who can more conveniently refer to its government record.

Taxes, families, pensions and health care

One proposition that received wide attention is the SPD’s tax concept providing tax relief for small and medium incomes of 15 billion per year. The SPD wants to achieve this by abolishing the solidarity tax (aimed at supporting the east German states in their efforts to economically catch up after reunification) for incomes up to 52,000 euros per year. Furthermore, the concept proposes the current top income tax rate of 42 per cent to take effect at an income of 60,000 euros instead of the current 54,000 euros.

A mid-top income tax rate of 45 per cent is to be introduced for incomes above 76,000 euros, while the upper top income tax rate is to increase to 48 per cent for all incomes above 250,000 euros. Moreover, the concept aims to introduce same taxation for incomes from work and capital and to increase taxes on bigger inheritances. The party argues that most of the resulting additional public funds will be enough to finance its propositions to improve the situation of families and its reforms in the pension and health care system.

Just as the CDU/CSU have done, the SPD programme focuses on families and proposes to introduce a so called family work time coupled with higher family allowances, free child care and a right to all-day child care, all of which is supposed to allow for a better reconciliation of career and family plans. These propositions are valid for all families independent of the parents’ marital status. The SPD’s idea of “family” includes same sex couples with children, to whom the programme aims to grant the right of adoption.

Unlike the CDU/CSU, the SPD wants to stabilise pension levels, keeping them at today’s level of 48 per cent, and cap pension contributions (which are today at 18.9 per cent) at 22 per cent until 2030. Furthermore, the programme rules out raising the retirement age above 67. In terms of housing, the programme proposes the introduction of a socially staggered allowance for home builders with low and medium incomes. It also underlines the party’s commitment to an increase in social housing and an improved rent cap.

The state of the German health care system has been criticised for years, with many arguing that it represents more of a two class system, prioritising privately insured individuals over those insured by public health insurance. The SPD wants to address this by introducing what it calls a “citizen’s insurance” financed on equal terms by employees and employers. It also intends to introduce a uniform fee structure establishing equal fees for all, regardless of whether a patient’s insurance is public or private. Regarding jobs in the health care sector, the programme aims to significantly improve pay and working conditions.

The economy, financial markets and the labour market – towards a substantial reform of Hartz IV?

German economic policy has been widely criticised by other EU member states such as France for its lack of domestic investment, but also by international organisations such as the IMF and the OECD. The SPD picks up on this critique and proposes an “obligation to invest” (Investitionspflicht). Forming a counterpart to the constitutionally anchored “balanced budget amendment” (Schuldenbremse) introduced in 2011 (making sure that the state cannot spend more than its income), this obligation is equally to be inscribed in the constitution and calls for an obligatory minimum percentage of the budget to be used for investments. The programme claims that this would allow for an additional 30 billion euros to be invested into schools, universities, and research, as well as transport, digital and energy infrastructure.

While the prior propositions are aimed at underlining the SPD’s economic competence (something the SPD is always obliged to prove more than the conservatives), its labour market propositions better reflect the core identity of the party. It calls for an end to motiveless limitations of work contracts and a legal right to train. This is to be facilitated by two propositions: First, an unemployment benefit specifically supporting the long term unemployed who need further training to qualify for a new job. Secondly, a so called “opportunity account” (Chancenkonto) granting up to 20,000 euros to every adult entering the labour market to finance training or study, starting a business, volunteering, or just taking a sabbatical to re-orient oneself professionally. As the programme says, the aim is to grant the possibilities that many more affluent parts of the population have to the population as a whole. Yet, both propositions have been criticised for lacking funding plans and mechanisms of effective control as well as for de facto extending the possible subscription to unemployment benefits.

Asylum, migration and integration

Schulz’s most recent attack was aimed at Merkel’s silence over a potential new refugee crisis that he sees heralded by newly rising numbers of refugees arriving in Italy. Schulz travelled to Italy to call for more European solidarity in the taking up of asylum seekers. He underlined the programme’s call for introducing financial incentives derived from a European budget for member states who accept refugees. In accordance with Schulz’s aim to put refugees on the campaign agenda, the issue of asylum and migration are given more space in the SPD’s programme than in the CDU/CSU’s. On the national level, the SPD wants to introduce a point-based immigration law oriented by the demand for qualified workers. The party also supports the strongly disputed possibility for dual nationality for children of immigrants, but leaves open if it should also be possible for later descendants.

In more general terms, the SPD recognises that Germany has long been a country of immigration. Contrary to the CDU/CSU, it does not adopt the idea of a Leitkultur, but refers to the German basic law as the basis for all integration. A novelty is the proposition to grant permanent residence to anyone who has successfully graduated from a German university. The programme substantially differs from CDU/CSU positions in the point that it sees Islam as a part of Germany, referring to a still contentious debate on the place of Islam in German culture.

Security and defence

Security and defence are issues more traditionally in the repertoire of the conservatives. As a consequence, security does not play the central role it plays in the CDU/CSU’s programme and is largely limited to the call for an increase in police staff by 15,000 (the conservatives call for an identical number). The major difference between both parties lies in the SPD’s rejection of the NATO set goal of increasing the German defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP and in the party’s call to substantially reduce arms sales. Yet, interestingly and contrary to the conservatives, the programme underlines the role of the US as the “most important ally outside Europe regardless of who forms the government.”

EU and Brexit

Due to Schulz’s career background in the EU, the programme holds many detailed propositions to reform and complement existing EU structures. The SPD puts its claims for the EU under the headline “for a more social Europe”. To achieve that, the party aims to benefit from the pro-European momentum it sees in the outcome of the French election. Therefore it supports France in its aim to establish a European economic government made up of members of the commission and led by a European minister of economy and finance.

Accountable to a new Eurozone parliament, which is to be established inside the existing structures of the EP, this new government structure is to obtain its own budget to cushion economic shocks and to provide effective regulation of financial markets. For this, the party aims to transform the European stability mechanism into a European monetary fund. It also calls for a harmonisation of corporate taxes in the Eurozone and the establishment of a European transparency register to fight tax fraud. This register is to include all owners and beneficiaries of European companies. The establishment of a European defence union that paves the way towards a European army is fully supported by the SPD.

The programme also responds to criticism of how democracy functions within the EU and aims to strengthen the European Parliament by giving it the right to elect members of the European Commission as well as the right to initiate legislation (a right currently reserved for the Commission). Moreover, the party supports the introduction of a common European suffrage and transnational lists for all seats left behind by the British MEPs leaving due to Brexit.

The social democrats argue for several European initiatives such as for the establishment of a European public prosecutor as well as a European anti-terrorism centre as a hub of exchange for all national security services. Like France, the SPD calls for more German investments in Europe, for instance to fight youth unemployment in south and western Europe through a broad European investment programme. In terms of the national debts of member states, the party argues for a reform of the European stability and growth pact which would allow anticyclical policies in times of crisis. To ensure more European solidarity, the SPD supports the idea of a social Europe where social rights are granted a status equivalent to the economic freedoms guaranteed by the European common market.

Similar to the CDU/CSU’s programme, there are also direct references to Brexit. The party supports the EU’s claim that “the four basic freedoms (free movement of goods, persons, services and capital) and the common market are inseparably linked”. While the party is open to partnerships with the UK, specifically in foreign and security policy, this should not undermine European unity which, according to the programme, is the “most important German interest” to be defended in the Brexit negotiations.

Too much substance and too little/too late campaigning?

Overall, the SPD programme shows that Schulz has taken seriously much of the critique that his bid for power lacks substance and that he has to deliver more in terms of content. He has also managed to unite the whole party behind his campaign by proposing rather moderate tax reforms and by correcting but not abolishing the main provisions of the much disputed Hartz IV reforms. This might be good enough to keep the SPD together and to please those voters who thoroughly read through party programmes.

However, as some observers note, the sheer amount of propositions as well as the efforts to please many dissenting voices inside and outside the party undermine the SPD’s capability to provide a more radical alternative to Merkel and a more coherent campaign that effectively involves social media and is carried by a fresh alternative narrative. As one comment put it, instead of introducing a new, independent paradigm saying “not like Merkel at all but new and different”, the campaign sends out the message “like Merkel but better”.

As a consequence, Schulz often appears to be desperately grasping for some momentum that does not really exist, for example when he warns of a new refugee crisis. Even left leaning newspapers have criticised Schulz for manufacturing a threat and playing with the fears of the population. The Schulz hype earlier this year reflected, it seems, a desire for something new, leading to early surges in polls when he openly distanced himself from Hartz IV and criticised a “neoliberal mainstream”. But in the long run, the SPD has not been able to credibly synthesise this into a coherent campaign – and it might be too late to change course.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Julian Göpffarth – LSE
Julian Göpffarth is a PhD candidate at the at the London School of Economics. He holds a degree in European Studies from Sciences Po Paris and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Prior to his PhD he has worked for the European Parliamentary Research Service. His research interests include nationalist ideologies, radicalization, European politics and philosophy.

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