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July 11, 2017

The political fallout of the G20 in Germany

The G20 had one important political effect after all - on the domestic politics of Germany. It was an almost perfect storm for the SPD. The mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz, a former Labour minister and one of the most senior SPD politicians in the country, received most of the blame for the lacklustre police response to violent demonstrators. 

Fortunately no-one was killed, but the violence in Hamburg left several hundred police injured, and this immediately raised the question not only whether it was a smart idea to allow the G20 to take in place in an urban space, but also whether the city had been well prepared for what happened. Judging by the comments from the police, this was not the case. We have never seen so many tweets from people who professed surprise that anti-G20 demonstrations could turn violent. Germany as a country is not prepared, but it is an SPD-ruled city administration that is now receiving the blame, while Angela Merkel is celebrated for standing up to Donald Trump. 

Spiegel Online notes four reasons why this has become a problem. The first is the de facto defenestration of one of the SPD’s previously most popular politicians, widely seen as a potential candidate for the top job. The public perception is that Scholz has essentially ended his national career over the weekend - he is one of the few last men standing in the SPD, aside from Martin Schulz. 

The second is the division of the top team at the SPD. Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel had expressed reservations when Merkel suggested Hamburg, her birth city, as the location for the G20. But the SPD leadership didn’t press this issue because it didn’t want to steal the show from Scholz, who lobbied hard for the meeting to take place in his city.

The third, and potentially most serious, issue is that this reveals a weak spot of the SPD. Since the days of Gerhard Schröder, the party has lost its credibility as a defender of law and order relative to the CDU. Scholz and his senator in charge of security stand accused of underestimating a violent threat. 

The fourth problem is the fact that the violent demonstrators were left-wing groups, and that the SPD appears to be blind to violence from the left. Deputy finance minister Jens Spahn (@JensSpahn), from the CDU’s conservative wing, tweeted in response to a call by Schulz not to politicise the violence.

"Of course, this is political, because of the systemic downplaying of left-wing violence, which is what parts of the SPD have been doing for years."

This whole episode reminds us of the 1970s when the CDU accused the SPD of being too tolerant of the left-wing terrorists of the Baader-Meinhof gang. The criticism did not stick at the time, partly because SPD was a real law-and-order party at the time, by comparison. But the contrast to today could not be starker. 

In a comment in FAZ, Eckart Lohse notes that this is one of the few subjects on which CDU and SPD are really divided. He notes that half a century has passed between the burning department stores of Frankfurt - a reference to one of the Baader-Meinhof’s first attacks - and the looted shops of Hamburg. But the political confrontation about how to address violence from the left has not disappeared. The SPD’s suggestion to move all future G20 summits to the United Nation HQ in New York is a sign of deep insecurity by the SPD. Lohse also notes that Merkel is lucky because there were no incidents of violence from the right. 

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