In 2010, as David Cameron formed a government in the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel reportedly advised him, “You’ll be fine, but your coalition partner will be destroyed.” Merkel was projecting her own experience: Over the previous five years, she had established the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) as the undisputed center of German politics. Merkel’s moment in the sun, so her comment to Cameron implied, had cast a deep shadow over her coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
A decade later, the collapse of the proud, 150-year old SPD is the political event gripping Berlin. From its glory days as the CDU’s principal challenger for the chancellery, the SPD has sunk all the way to 15.8 percent in last month’s European parliamentary elections, the worst result in its history. The desperation is palpable. As polls show the party sliding even further, not a day goes by without panicked SPD officials musing over the party’s fate—and the possibility of its total implosion. Since the European Union (EU) election disaster pushed party leader Andrea Nahles out the door, SPD grandees are even discussing selecting Kevin Kühnert, the head of the SPD’s youth-group, to take her place. At 29 years old, Kühnert may make Pete Buttigieg seem like an experienced graybeard, but he possesses a certain attraction: More than any other SPD leader, he argued passionately against the coalition with Merkel’s CDU.
The story of the SPD’s collapse appears straightforward, then—the inevitable decline of a party relegated to junior status in government. But perhaps the explanation isn’t so simple. A less dramatic but equally noteworthy downward trend is now discernible in Merkel’s CDU and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) of Bavaria. Just like the SPD, the so-called Union of CDU/CSU suffered its worst European parliamentary election result in history last month, winning just under 29 percent of the vote. Attending the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) meeting in San Sebastián, Spain last month, it seemed clear to me that the crisis these parties face is not one of political profile but of bland centrism.