Restaurants that are neither good nor bad, neither traditional nor sophisticated are never full because they don't stand out from the rest. Nobody talks about them, except when it's about where not to go. Something similar has happened to the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany. Their likely defeat in next Sunday's elections will be another body blow to the European left.
Let's face it, it is not easy for an opposition party to oust modern Germany's most popular Chancellor. Germans have baptized her Übermutter (mother hen) for having brought them to their admired economic success and, perhaps more importantly, for making them feel proud and patriotic without embarrassment. Given the task of advising his SPD clients, Mad Men's Don Draper would have said: "If you don't like what is being said, then change the conversation!" But, who doesn't like Germany today?
In the past, one could recognize a German citizen in an international meeting if someone identified himself simply as European. Germany's traumatic past inclined its citizens towards discretion. Germans were regarded as disciplined, but above all boring. Today they can hold their heads high in the crowd and fly their national flag without waking the ghosts of the past. They can even claim unchallenged -- as Merkel did -- that Greeks should not have entered the euro because they were not prepared. Nobody would ask them in return if they were ready to integrate in the European community after WWII. They are triumphant and the rest are weak.
Defeating the mother of the nation is a Herculean task, even more so if the challenger combines a party identity crisis with a jinxed candidate. A poll revealed that 69 percent could not tell the difference between the SPD and the Christian Democrats (CDU). An affordable confusion for Übermutter -- whose popularity is far bigger than that of her own party -- but not for Peer Steinbrück, the former Chancellor during the Grand Coalition (2005-2009) and today's SPD candidate.
The television debate strengthened Steinbrück's image, but not enough to decrease the 10 to 12 points that separate him from Merkel. His recent picture on the cover page of a magazine flashing his middle finger has reminded the electorate of his reputation for tasteless provocations. He once said that the Chancellor's salary (around €289.986 p.a.) was too low, to which the former Chancellor Schröder responded, "Politicians who find the pay insufficient should look for another job." On another occasion he claimed that Merkel is loved "because she gets a women's bonus."
Let's explore the SDP's ideological confusion. The map of German political parties is diverse. A new party, Alternative for Germany, wants Germany to abandon the Euro. Die Linke is a left wing party made up of former members of the SPD and old Communists. The Greens have survived with their anti-nuclear and pacifist narrative. The Liberals, even though sunk, continue to be loyal to their Liberal economic agenda. The Christian Democrats (CDU) are not in great electoral shape but have Merkel at the forefront. So where does the SPD stand?
It was the SPD at the hands of Schröder who put forward the Agenda 2010, a package of labor and economic reforms that paved the way for Germany's current economic success -- a liberal agenda followed by a grand coalition with their principal rival party. From then on, Merkel has been eating away at the natural space of the center-left. Her protagonist defense of the Tobin Tax speaks for itself. She opportunistically launched an anti-nuclear agenda after the Fukushima accident. More recently, she has proposed similar alternatives to the creation of a minimum wage, the star proposal of Mr. Steinbrück! Other Social Democratic ideas to increase taxes for higher wage earners were discarded by the candidate himself as "not sexy."
Southern and Northern Social Democrats in Europe share their loss of political space, but little more. The pan-European social democratic narrative has been broken under the disparity of geographical interests in the euro crisis. Steinmeier, the leader of the SPD in the Bundestag, speaks of Greece as if it was a pitiful bankrupt company. Only now, during the campaign, have they started accusing Merkel for punishing the bad pupils of the euro, yet they have supported her in all the major euro crisis policies. It is not credible. Steinbrück himself appointed as spokesman a former Bild journalist, known for his anti-Greek campaigns. If you wouldn't give him an interview, why would you hire him?
The only thing that may save the SPD is the fragmented and complicated mathematics of the German parliament. Steinbrück has sworn to his voters that he will not repeat the Grand Coalition. He prefers to govern with the Greens, but they will not have enough votes, unless they include Die Linke (an option also disregarded by Steinbrück). I'm afraid that the SPD has no choice but to reinvent itself. However, time has run out for these elections.