WIESBADEN — Germany’s Social Democrats on Sunday elected Andrea Nahles, a combative and outspoken former labour minister, as the first woman leader of the 155-year-old party, albeit with a lacklustre vote result.
Known for her lectern-thumping speeches and occasional outbursts of child-like humour, the 47-year-old single mother joins Chancellor Angela Merkel at the top of German politics -- and as the woman who may one day seek her job.
"We’re breaking though the glass ceiling in the SPD," said Nahles at the delegates’ meeting in the city of Wiesbaden. "And the ceiling will stay open."
Well-connected within her party, Nahles, a former leader of its Jusos youth wing, won 66 per cent of the vote, beating Simone Lange, 41, an ex-policewoman and mayor of the city of Flensburg.
The less than stellar result against an outsider reflected lingering resentment within the party against the decision, strongly promoted by Nahles, to once more govern as junior partners to Merkel’s conservatives.
Conservative daily Die Welt called the outcome "a vote of no confidence" that "throws a spotlight on the conflict within the SPD".
Nonetheless, electing a female leader is "a sign of progress that was long overdue," said the SPD’s outgoing interim leader, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who called it "a historic moment".
In the lead-up to the vote, well-wishers had ironically expressed hope that Nahles would do worse than her predecessor Martin Schulz.
A repeat of his 100-per cent party backing last year amid a euphoric "Schulz hype" would be seen as a bad omen given that in the end, he scored just 20.5 per cent in the September 2017 general election, the party’s worst post-war result.
While Schulz’s roller-coaster ride in German politics has shuddered to a halt, the task of revitalising the dispirited SPD now falls to Nahles.
A survey last week by Infratest dimap found that 47 per cent of respondents doubted that the party veteran is the right person to lead a "renewal", while just one third expressed confidence.
The challenge for her labour party now will be to at once govern responsibly with Merkel, and convince its dwindling band of working-class voters that it is still their champion.
Nahles vowed that the SPD will fight for social justice and welfare, declaring that "solidarity is what is most lacking in the globalised, neoliberal, turbo-digitalised world".
She pledged a fight for decent wages as technology destroys traditional jobs, and a pro-EU foreign policy that also emphasises pacifism and international cooperation.
Nahles, from the party’s left wing, scored some landmark successes under the previous Merkel coalition government, notably in introducing a minimum wage.
When voters declined to reward the SPD for such gains, the party initially promised a muscular fight from the opposition benches.
Nahles at the time summed up the SPD’s combative spirit against the Merkel government with a street brawler’s phrase, telling journalists that "from tomorrow we’ll smack ’em in the face".
When it turned out the SPD would likely rejoin Merkel after all, but drive a tough bargain in the process, she used a kindergarten taunt that loosely translates as "na-na na-na boo-boo".
It was not out of style for Nahles, who once mocked Merkel’s party in the Bundestag with a slightly off-key rendition of the reality-denying theme song of Swedish children’s book hero Pippi Longstocking. — AFP