New SPD leader has tough job: saving his party

November 14, 2009

Two years ago Sigmar Gabriel came into the Reuters office in Berlin for an interview about climate change, the environment, renewable energy policies and the state of his Social Democrats.

The burly minister, who was elected leader of Germany’s struggling centre-left SPD party on Friday, had clearly lost weight on his summer holiday that had just ended so, while my colleagues were still streaming into the conference room, I asked: “You’ve lost some weight, haven’t you?”

Gabriel smiled briefly. Colleagues later told me they were horrified that I had asked him about his weight. It was merely an attempt to break the ice. There was, after all, another German political leader a few years ago who was once even heavier and lost more than 50 kg with an intensive jogging and diet programme that began one summer: Joschka Fischer of the Greens.

“Yeah, I did,” Gabriel said. “I got some exercise on my holiday. But I won’t be able to keep it off if people keep putting things like this in front of me like you’ve done here,” he added with a laugh as he munched on some cookies.

Gabriel soon regained the few kilos he had lost – so did so did Fischer.

Gabriel, who even then was clearly one of the most ambitious politicians of his generation, has a bigger worry right now.

How do you save Germany’s oldest party? The SPD won just 23 percent of the vote in the September election and left government after an 11-year run. That was down 11 points from four years ago and a staggering 18 points off the 41 percent they won when winning the chancellery in 1998. About 10 million voters who backed the SPD in 1998 have abandoned the party.

“We’ve lost half of our voters since 1998,” Gabriel, 50, told the party congress in a two-hour speech. “We’ve lost them in all directions: some don’t vote any more, some went to the conservatives, some to the Free Democrats, some to the Left party and some to the Greens. What’s clear is that a party that loses its support like that has lost its profile.”

So why did Gabriel take on this job? There wasn’t a long list of candidates which, considering the way the party has treated its leaders the past two decades, is understandable. The SPD leadership job has turned into an ejection seat. The party had just three different chairmen between 1950 and 1990 but there have been 11 different leaders since 1990 and an incredible six since 2004. Many have left involuntarily. Gabriel ran unopposed.

“That’s not healthy for our party,” said Gabriel when asked about the rapid changes in leadership. “One delegate came up to me and said he had a Christmas wish: that I’d be the party chairman for at least the next two years. I told him I also had a Christmas wish: that in a year he would have the same Christmas wish.”

Gabriel, once a school teacher whose mother was a nurse, was in the second tier of his party’s leadership before the September election debacle and an environment minister who courted controversy with environmental groups at times. He was ambitious and long had his eye on the job of one day becoming parliamentary floor leader, a top-tier job in the SPD hierarchy. Outside Germany, he was probably best known for adopting Knut, the polar bear born in Berlin’s Zoo.


Gabriel’s brusque humour and prickly nature had rubbed many in the SPD the wrong way. We’ve heard others in the SPD leadership -– in similar off-the-record comments in meetings in the Reuters office -– tell us they believed there was no way Gabriel would get the top job.

Now, in a single leap, he’s skipped the intermediate step and clinched the party’s top job. A television journalist told him: “Six months ago I never would have dreamt you’d be the SPD chairman now.”

“Neither did I,” said Gabriel. “Neither did I.”

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