But while the SPD was once a model for social democrats around the world, the prospect of leading Germany’s oldest political party has dulled in recent years following a plunge in support.
Candidates have until Sept.1 to join the leadership race, with Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, one of the few prominent SPD members gunning for the job.
Leadership hopefuls will present their case to the party’s 426,000 members over the course of 23 regional conferences, which will form the build-up to a special party conference in December when the winner – or winners – will be formally elected.
In an attempt to breathe life into the ailing party, which sunk to a record low of 20.5 per cent in the 2017 national election, the Social Democrats have paved the way for dual leadership teams and are encouraging women to run.
It is the candidates’ commitment to either backing or abandoning the centre-left SPD’s coalition with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) that has emerged as one of the key issues in the leadership race.
“We have to see what else is possible with the CDU,’’ said Boris Pistorius, who is running alongside fellow State Minister, Petra Koepping.
But other candidates are not so happy with the status quo, which has seen the SPD prop up a CDU government for all but four of Merkel’s 14 years in power.
Party health spokesman, Karl Lauterbach, and Alexander Ahrens, Mayor of the eastern city of Bautzen, are in favour of ending the coalition, which many SPD members see as contributing to the party’s decline.
“We have a clear analysis of why the party is down,’’ said Dierk Hirschel, an economist with the service sector union Verdi, pointing to the SPD’s coalition with Merkel as preventing the party from pursuing a more comprehensive social policy.
Hirschel and his running mate, SPD lawmaker, Hilde Mattheis, are campaigning for “a radical restart” for the SPD, whose history dates back to 1863.
But any decision on the future of the CDU alliance could be taken out of the new leadership’s hands, following two state elections on Sept. 1.
The elections could result in the SPD losing its long-held grip on power in Brandenburg and crashing to below 10 per cent in Saxony, potentially increasing the clamour in the party to pull out of the CDU-led coalition.
The SPD leadership ballot follows the dramatic resignation in June of Party Chief, Andrea Nahles, who had convinced her reluctant party to sign up again to a new Merkel-led coalition.
But Nahles’ departure has done little to change the party’s fortunes, and falling support has turned the role of a successor into something of a poisoned chalice in German politics.
The SPD swept to power nationally more than 20 years ago under then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, winning 40.9 per cent of the vote and paving the way for their coalition with the Greens.
Schroeder’s tough labour-and-welfare reform agenda led to a major split in the SPD, with a large number of members switching their allegiance to hard-left party Die Linke.
The new leadership will also have to draw up plans for tempting back supporters, who have been drawn to the anti-foreigner message of the far-right Alternative for Germany.
On the other side of the political ledger, the SPD also appears to have missed the boat on global warming, with young voters increasingly drawn to the strong environmental credentials of the Greens.
Today’s SPD is a long way from reaching the heights seen in the 1998 election that brought Schroeder to power.
The party is currently hovering at around 13 per cent, according to Berlin pollsters Forsa.
The slump underscores “the extremely dramatic situation” facing the SPD, said Forsa Chief, Manfred Guellner.
“It has obviously completely lost the link to the ‘working class’ and is now only backed by a minority of voters,’’ he said.
Amid the gloomy outlook, Scholz, the SPD’s big-name leadership candidate, has said running was “not a very easy decision’’.
But he and his running mate, Klara Geywitz, came to the conclusion that their party needs them.
Edited by Abdulfatah Babatunde