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Social Democrats challenging the status quo now a matter of survival

Estonia's Social Democrats have suffered setback after setback over the recent months. Now party chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski has decided to resign his government post and concentrate on the next campaign
Estonia's Social Democrats have suffered setback after setback over the recent months. Now party chairman Jevgeni Ossinovski has decided to resign his government post and concentrate on the next campaign Source: Image: Eesti Meedia/Scanpix, Graphic: Anette Parksett/ERR

What seemed to be just an option has now become a necessity. Coming up with proposals for real change appears to be the only way for Social-Democratic parties not to disappear in an ever larger undifferentiated political center. Both in Germany and in Estonia, the current phase of transition will determine the fortunes of SPD and SDE in the coming months.

In Western Europe, the parties that belong to the social democratic tradition have seen historical declines in various elections of the last twelve months. The French Parti Socialiste has almost disappeared since the first round of last year's presidential elections, with Benoît Hamon turning the preferences expressed in pre-election polls into a measly 6.3 percent of the vote, marking the worst result for the party since its historical low in 1969 at 5.01 percent. Italy's Partito Democratico has crashed from the government into opposition by getting a miserable though largely predicted 19 percent in March's general elections. The German SPD delivered its worst post-war result, with only 20.5 percent of the vote, losing 5.2 percent compared to 2013.

Social Democratic leaders abroad are reeling, wondering what went wrong and how they might reconquer the vote of the left, and what changes need to be made in the coming months to revive the center-left. Sound familiar?

Estonia's Social Democratic Party (SDE) has gone through a steady decline towards the position of the fourth party in the country, recently overtaken by the hard-right Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE). According to the latest surveys, SDE hardly manages to stay afloat just above the five-percent election threshold, a result even worse than the already worrying 8 percent approval of the party. Center-left factions throughout Europe have one point in common in their most recent history: they have all been in government positions in their respective countries, whether as the biggest party or as a junior coalition partner. The fates of the German SPD and the Estonian SDE, however, seem even more alike: Both parties are currently in free fall, both are questioning what to change to stay alive on a scene dominated by the center-right, both have recently been surpassed by formations of the extreme or national-conservative right.

Could it be that being part of coalition governments as junior members harms the center-left? In the situation of an apparently irreconcilable contrast between choices dictated by some sort of governmental pragmatism on one hand and loyalty to the core values of the Social Democratic tradition on the other, what can these parties do to win back the vote of the left and reestablish a connection with their ever-shrinking electorate?

The young members of the Social-Democratic factions in Germany and Estonia are among the most aware of the need to achieve a decisive breakthrough in the parties' political discourse of recent years. I talked to Maximilian Krahé (SPD) and Madis Roodla (SDE) to get a better understanding of the grass-root pushes for the renewal and revival of the center-left, both from an ideological as well as an electoral point of view. Maximilian, an SPD member since 2011, is a PhD candidate in Political Theory at Yale University and co-author of a text on the future of Social Democracy, called the Paris Manifesto. On the Estonian side, Madis is SDE's international secretary and an advisor to Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser (SDE) at the latter's ministry in Tallinn.


According to Krahé, what explains the fact that for the first time Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) surpassed SPD in a survey and the party now lags behind a far-right conservative and populist group is that "the current platform, the current ideology of SPD, which is essentially the gradual improvement of the status quo, is exhausted, for lack of a better word."

Being part of coalition governments has not benefitted SPD. Though mostly indirectly, it has "blurred the lines between left and right in Germany, moving protest votes towards the fringes," as Krahé puts it. Today, he adds, "it is unclear what an SPD-led government would do fundamentally differently from a Merkel-led one. And that, in my eyes, is the result of repeated grand coalition participation: fundamental platform renewal is impossible while the party is in government."

It seems clear that there are actual conflicting "souls" within the German Social Democratic Party that follow a fault line between the establishment and the insurgents. "The establishment believes that more of the same will lead us through the crisis, [while] the insurgents believe that radical change is needed. However, neither of the two souls has managed to reenergize the electoral base so far," Krahé argues.

A rather interesting point is the apparent dilemma between the party's core values and the sense of responsibility that made it join another grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

While this is seen as a dilemma by observers and the media on a broader scale, Krahé thinks this isn't really it. "If there is the opinion that there is a genuine and deep conflict between the government that we are asked to join and our core values, then [our conclusion would have to be that this] government at hand is working against the national interest overall as [the party] understands it. In which case we certainly should not be part to it. If, on the other hand, our core values and the interpretation of the policies they translate into are no longer a good understanding of what is in the national interest, then these recommendations need to be amended, which is something that can only really be done while being in opposition."


Now that EKRE seems on the way to establishing itself as the third party in the country, SDE finds itself navigating anything but smooth seas. Party ratings continue to drop despite the slight rise of last month, with a dramatic 6-percent setback in the latest survey. But most of all, only a few people, some 3 percent, actually believe in the party's current chairman, Jevgeni Ossinovski, as a credible rival for Kaja Kallas (Reform) or Jüri Ratas (Center) in the race for next year's general elections in March.

As Madis Roodla explains, EKRE's overtaking the party on the right can be explained by "our partial inability, as junior partner in the current ruling coalition, to develop policies that would effectively contrast inequality as much as we wanted to. We can do better, especially in the rural areas, where those who have been left behind see inequality grow along with the cost of living, and the consequent cases of severe material deprivation." The latter is a phenomenon that also affects the suburbs of Tallinn and Ida-Viru County.

Being part of a coalition government however has also been one of SDE's few ways to fight its battles without creating a situation of political instability in the country. The time has come therefore to overcome the dilemma between pragmatism and core values. "We have to stand up for our values where it comes to fighting domestic violence and violence against women in general, counterbalancing the marginalization of certain social groups along long-standing and die-hard divisions, and fostering a more harmonic economic development to improve territorial cohesion between different counties and regions in Estonia," Roodla says.

Though its alliance with the Center Party has allowed SDE to shift the focus of the government's economic and cultural policies slightly to the left, the mission now has to be "to show that we truly are the only left-wing force in Estonia," as Roodla explains. "We need to do it through our policies. If we don't want to see economic and gender inequality increase, we need to communicate this message strongly and clearly," he adds.

With Ossinovski's resignation from his position as Minister of Health and Labour and his announcement that he wants to fully commit to relaunch SDE ahead of next year's elections, a small step has already been taken. Climbing up the slope, however, is not an easy task. Support for Kaja Kallas continues to grow, even among SDE voters, 28 percent of which would prefer to see Kallas as prime minister, compared to only 20 percent support for Ossinovski in the same group.

If SDE doesn't manage to come up with policy recommendations truly distinct from those of the other parties, tackling the biggest issues this country has and presenting a platform that works towards equal rights and equal opportunitiy for everyone, doing better over the coming months will remain mere wishful thinking. If one thing seems clear, it is that the time to postpone real change is over. If SDE wants to do more than simply survive, the moment to act has undoubtedly arrived.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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