The SPD leaves feathers in opinion polls. The Greens, on the other hand, are catching up. What is the Chancellor’s party doing wrong? Was the victory in the federal election with Olaf Scholz just a mistake? FOCUS spoke to the Berlin Forsa boss Peter Matuschek.
FOCUS: In the polls, the Greens of the SPD have come closer and closer in recent weeks. Do you think this is a flash in the pan or a growing trend?
Peter Matuschek: First of all, it has to be said that this is not the first time that the Greens have won favor over the SPD. In our nationwide polls, the Greens were already the strongest party after the 2019 European elections. After Annalena Baerbock was nominated as the Green candidate for chancellor in April 2021, there was another situation in which the Greens nationwide were not only ahead of the SPD, but also ahead of the Union.
Then the mistakes made by the Greens in the election campaign and the fact that the CDU/CSU supporters got used to Mr. Laschet to a certain extent meant that the values for the Greens went down and those of the CDU/CSU went up and the Union pushed ahead of the Greens again. The SPD then overtook the Greens only a few weeks before the election in mid-August (and later also the Union), because the voters were still most likely to trust Olaf Scholz as chancellor candidate, if not the SPD as a party.
After the government was formed in December, the SPD was initially able to gain some competence and Olaf Scholz, as chancellor, was able to further improve his personality traits. In the meantime, however, only 11 percent trust the SPD with problem-solving skills and the values for Scholz are also decreasing. The result is that the SPD is currently back below 20 percent nationwide. We’ll have to wait and see if that holds up.
FOCUS: And the Greens?
Matuschek: With Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, they have two actors who are currently among the most popular politicians nationwide, because a majority of the government thinks their work is good and because they stand for a more pragmatic and less ideological course. Both have opened up the party a bit and apparently ended the internal factional struggles that have long been typical of the Greens. As can be observed in North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, a coalition with the CDU is no longer a hot topic for mid-level Greens.
FOCUS: Who is currently addressing the classic social democratic milieus?
Matuschek: The SPD, at least not to a sufficient extent, although the party’s problems have been known for a long time: unconvincing candidates, insufficient competence from the voters’ point of view and a dwindling regional and local anchoring, which has always distinguished the SPD in the past. The result is a lack of mobilization in elections, as was recently observed again in the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the SPD received almost a million fewer votes than in the federal elections.
FOCUS: … and now Green can score?
Matuschek: The Greens are still a party of the urban upper middle class. However, in some regions, such as Baden-Württemberg, it is quite capable of winning over new groups of voters. Whether they will also be able to do this nationwide in the future depends, among other things, on how they prove themselves in the federal government. In any case, there is a large potential voter in the political center who does not feel sufficiently addressed by the current SPD or by the “post-Merkel CDU” under Friedrich Merz.
FOCUS: What part does Olaf Scholz have in the poor performance of the SPD?
Matuschek: Satisfaction with his work as Federal Chancellor has decreased significantly in recent weeks. On the other hand, a majority of Germans think his position on the issue of arms deliveries to Ukraine is correct and do not find it too hesitant. Scholz is also still well ahead of the two party leaders, the general secretary and the SPD members in his cabinet in the voters’ assessment. One point of criticism from voters is that he explains his politics too little. A majority also expects more from him when it comes to combating the economic problems in Germany, especially the rising prices.
FOCUS: The fight against inflation and higher prices are a classic problem-solving field for social democrats?
Matuschek: My impression is that the relief package, which should take effect from this week, is more of a hodgepodge of measures that are intended to serve the respective clientele of the three governing parties, but with which the majority of citizens cannot see a common thread. This gives the impression that many billions are being spent, but not necessarily on the right things.
FOCUS: Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht has come under criticism for private misconduct, Karl Lauterbach is now considered erratic and unorganized. How much of a difference do misconduct by individual ministers make to the overall picture of the governing SPD party?
Matuschek: Of course, these cases cloud the picture and reveal the low staffing level of the SPD at the federal level as well. The SPD staff in the cabinet and party leadership simply lack the necessary trust among the population. In our ranking of politicians, Olaf Scholz comes out on top with 49 out of 100 points, followed by Karl Lauterbach with 45 points, although the trend is falling. Saskia Esken, Kevin Kühnert and Christine Lambrecht share the rear seats with Dietmar Bartsch and Janine Wissler from the left. Scholz cannot compensate for that alone.
FOCUS: The Greens even had their first resignation in the cabinet with Anne Spiegel…
Matuschek: The case was resolved so quickly that it didn’t harm the Greens. Had the process taken longer, there might have been problems.
FOCUS: What advice would you give the SPD in this situation?
Matuschek: The success in the last federal election, when one can speak of a success with 25.7 percent of the votes, was primarily due to the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, who, compared to Laschet and Baerbock, the voters at the time had the most confidence in to lead the country. However, this only covered up the party’s structural problems for a short time and they cannot be solved overnight. On the one hand, the SPD would have to try to regain a foothold in the municipalities and states.
In some federal states there are certainly examples where the SPD still succeeds, such as in Lower Saxony under Stephan Weil. On the other hand, she would actually have the chance in the federal government to regain trust through government work that is not only oriented towards minorities, but also makes politics for the majority.
FOCUS: Where do you see the SPD in 20 years? And in comparison the Greens?
Matuschek: The structural problem facing the SPD – but also the CDU – is the aging of their electorate. In the last federal election, the SPD and Union together received fewer votes among young voters than the Greens and FDP together. If the SPD cannot stop this trend and the Greens also increase among the older eligible voters, the Greens could overtake the SPD permanently in the long term. Whether it comes to that or not is also up to the SPD.
FOCUS: Black-Green is currently establishing itself as a new form of government. Will she replace red-green?
Matuschek: That will be an interesting question for the future. The CDU and the Greens already govern together in several federal states, and the reservations of their supporters against such an alliance are much lower than they were a few years ago. On some issues, there are now more similarities between the supporters of the Union parties and the Greens than, for example, between the SPD and the Greens or the Union and the FDP. In any case, the SPD is no longer automatically the “natural” partner of the Greens.