Struggling German SPD searches for its "Obama"

BERLIN (Reuters) - Can Germany’s Social Democrats find a Barack Obama of their own to revive their party?

Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit stands in front of the Brandenburg gate during his visit to the 'International Paralympic Day 2007' (IPD) event in Berlin August 23, 2007. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

At a recent rally in Nuremberg, Hubertus Heil, the deputy leader in the struggling SPD, tried to inject a bit of the charisma and can-do spirit of the Democratic presidential candidate by asking delegates to chant: “Yes, we can.”

It didn’t go down well.

After a moment of mumbled ‘Yes, Vee Kahn,” the English chants fizzled out. But since that rally in late May, German media and dispirited members of the centre-left SPD, which has slumped to post-war lows in opinion polls, have been asking: “Where’s our Obama?”

Some on the left think Berlin’s popular Mayor Klaus Wowereit might be the best hope to give the SPD a lift in the way Obama’s historic candidacy has helped boost the U.S. Democrats.

Wowereit, 54, is a few rungs down the ladder from unpopular SPD Chairman Kurt Beck and so would not likely be stepping into the 59-year-old’s shoes soon.

Beck himself will decide who runs against Chancellor Angela Merkel as the SPD candidate in the 2009 election -- he has hinted he might not run but instead nominate the popular Foreign Minister, Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

But many in the SPD, which governs with Merkel’s conservatives in an awkward “grand coalition,” are already looking past the dim prospects of 2009 to the following election in 2013 -- and it’s Wowereit’s name that keeps coming up.

“Who knows what the situation will be in 2013?” Wowereit said with a wide smile when asked about his ambitions in a recent interview with Reuters.

“This situation right now is that Kurt Beck will decide later this year who will run and I assume he’ll be our candidate. And we’ll all support him. I was elected as mayor of Berlin to 2011 and right now I’m not looking for another job.”

But Wowereit does hope to meet Obama. German media reports have said the U.S. candidate may be planning a trip to Berlin soon and Wowereit has already met an Obama campaign official to discuss a possible visit.

Wowereit is the most popular elected leader in the SPD and the party’s most charismatic national figure -- Beck is seen as provincial and wooden while Steinmeier’s popularity hinges largely on his senior government role.

But there are no primaries in Germany, no open inner-party competition. It’s the party leader’s prerogative to pick the candidate. And in German party politics, it would be political suicide for anyone to openly run against the chairman.


Wowereit is an SPD anomaly -- he is popular and has been re-elected. And despite painful spending cuts in Germany’s biggest city to eliminate a deficit he inherited in 2001, his approval ratings remain high in Berlin and nationally.

“He’s got the potential to be a ‘German Obama’,” one unnamed Left party leader was quoted as saying in the Tageszeitung newspaper.

But the conservative daily Die Welt said the attempt to invoke the Obama spirit at the Nuremberg rally only showed how far the SPD are from having anyone like the Illinois senator.

“The SPD has weak leadership and no blueprint,” Die Welt said. “Chanting ‘Yes, we can’ won’t help. The SPD has no Obama.”

Aside from Wowereit in Berlin, the SPD holds only four of Germany’s 16 federal states -- often a springboard to the chancellor’s office. Beck is the state premier in Rhineland- Palatinate. None of the other three have national ambitions.

“I don’t plan on being the mayor of Berlin forever, that’d be a bit much,” said Wowereit, sitting in front of a large portrait of Willy Brandt that hangs in his office.

Wowereit said the SPD’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was West Berlin’s Mayor (1957-66) before becoming West Germany’s Chancellor (1969-74), inspired him to get into politics.

“Willy Brandt was my role model,” said Wowereit. “He had a great influence on me. Sure, he was the mayor of Berlin and then chancellor. That doesn’t automatically mean that I’d strive to follow him into all the offices he held.”

Wowereit owes part of his national renown to the spectacular circumstances surrounding his rise in the SPD.

In 2001, a tabloid was about to report that he is gay. Wowereit pre-empted the scoop, telling a SPD rally that, even though most knew it already, “I’m gay and that’s a good thing.”

That line -- “Ich bin schwul und es ist gut so” -- became a cult phrase and sent his career soaring. He won the 2001 election to become mayor of Berlin.

After Wowereit, gay leaders in Merkel’s CDU and Free Democrats also went public with their sexuality.

His most significant credential for the 2013 election could be his track record running a largely successful left-of-centre government in the city of Berlin.

He governs with the new Left party, a grouping of SPD defectors and former East German communists which is now Germany’s third largest party.

The Left is still ostracized in western Germany, but in Berlin the SPD and the Left have had a turbulence-free seven years in power, managing to tighten the fiscal screws where the previous CDU mayor failed.

National polls show a clear left-of-centre majority for a theoretical alliance made up of the SPD, Greens and Left party.

The SPD has ruled out a federal coalition with the Left for 2009. But they won’t rule such an alliance out down the road if the Left changes its foreign policy positions, such as its opposition to German military participation in international operations and to a treaty for the European Union.

Wowereit knows time is on his side and reckons the taboo will eventually fall.

“I’m not someone to say that out of ideological reasons ‘We can’t work together with the Left party’,” he said.

“On the contrary, we’ve had a good experience here in Berlin. But I also know that the Left party in Berlin is different than the Left party in some western states.”

Oskar Niedermayer, political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, said Wowereit is an early favourite for 2013 because the SPD will have little choice but to open to the Left.

“Wowereit’s the obvious candidate for such a power option,” he said. “Because the SPD-Left has worked out okay in Berlin, he will be the SPD’s best hope to get back into the chancellery.”

Wowereit is keeping his cards close to his chest -- for now.

“Right now the Left party is not reliable enough for any sort of federal left-left coalition,” Wowereit said before adding: “Who knows what will happen in five years?”