Olaf Scholz in run-off election for SPD chairmanship: Now things really start

The loudest rejoicing in the Willy-Brandt-Haus breaks out on Saturday night when the result of the runner-up is announced. Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans received 21 percent of the votes – nearly 45,000 Social Democrats voted for the two.


Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz came in first, they lived up to their role as favorites. But Esken and Walter Borjans are just behind, about 3,500 votes lie between the two teams, which now make up the SPD chairmanship in the run-off election.


Esken was the joy to see before the announcement of the result. On the edge of the stage in the SPD headquarters, the Bundestag member beamed across the face and enthusiastically punched Walter Borjans in the upper arm. The former Minister of Finance of North Rhine-Westphalia was initially relaxed. After the first TV interviews he also showed emotions and embraced his campaign manager and other familiar people enthusiastically.


The first round of the candidate race of the SPD is over. The sensation, a retirement of Scholz, has failed. Interim boss Malu Dreyer and Secretary General Lars Klingbeil praised the procedure on this evening effusively: The effort was worthwhile, the SPD changed and showed passion, according to Klingbeil.


But the turnout was rather mau. Just 53 percent of the SPD members have voted. In view of the expectations which the party leadership itself has fueled, this is not particularly intoxicating – even though the comrades point out that in the Green Party 2017 only 59 percent of the members took part in the primary election of the top candidates.


But in the SPD itself there was even more engagement a year and a half ago: at the GroKo decision in the spring of 2018, 76 percent of the SPD members cast their votes. This time, the enthusiasm of the party was obviously limited. Which should also be due to the candidates.


In recent days, some in the SPD even feared that participation could be below 50 percent. It did not get that bad. Nevertheless, it remains to be stated that almost 47 percent of the comrades renounced the option to elect their new chairmen.


Scholz against polarization


The question now is whether in the run-off election really more members join in, what the party leadership is about. However, it is also possible that participation will fall significantly in November. That could happen if those Social Democrats, who this time chose Ralf Stegner, Christina Kampmann or Karl Lauterbach, find none of the two duos in the runoff election convincing – and there is no escalation.


That could not be so bad for Scholz and Geywitz. They stand for the current course of the party and have their supporters in the camp of pragmatists who are in favor of remaining in the Grand Coalition. "We need a strong SPD who dares to do something that dares to win elections," said Scholz on Saturday night. He does not want to polarize, but merge the SPD. In the ballot, "everyone should advertise for themselves and not against others".


Kühnert sees directional decision


This course – no polarization, no duo confrontation – is dangerous for Esken and Walter Borjans. They should only have a chance if they attack and show what they actually do differently, how they want to change the SPD.


One who supports the challengers has already given the course. Before the party is a "direction decision," wrote Juso CEO Kevin Kühnert on Twitter. For him as well as for Saskia Esken it is clear: The SPD is to leave the grand coalition. She sees "actually no chance," said Esken, with the Union to find a common level for upcoming issues.


Walter Borjans, on the other hand, has not yet decided. The 67-year-old also exercises significant criticism of the GroKo. But he also says he does not give up hope. The former NRW Finance Minister wants to try to put content to Scholz – with demands for a more left course, such as in tax and economic policy.


But it seems unlikely that he will be able to hold this course without a clear plea for or against the GroKo. The right dispute in the SPD has just begun.


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