BERLIN (Reuters) - Andrea Nahles, the plain-speaking 47-year-old leader of the Social Democrats in Germany’s parliament, is set to be given the task of re-energizing a 154-year-old party that has alienated much of its traditional voter base - workers and young people.
The party may have agreed reluctantly to go into coalition as junior partner to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives - pending a members’ ballot - but it would have preferred to take time in opposition to recover from September’s election drubbing.
Martin Schulz is stepping aside as leader after his campaign to become chancellor earned the SPD its worst result in the postwar era. If its leadership follow his advice, Nahles will become the party’s first female chairwoman.
A former labor minister described by the mass-circulation daily Bild as “the only real guy in the SPD”, Nahles is credited with marshalling support in her party for a renewal of the ‘grand coalition’ with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives that has governed Germany since 2013.
Now she will be leading the charge to win approval of the terms of the deal from the party’s 464,000 members, many of whom remain deeply skeptical about another tie-up with Merkel.
She will face strong opposition from 28-year-old Kevin Kuehnert, the formidable leader of the SPD’s more radical youth wing - a job she held in the 1990s. Kuehnert has railed against the coalition for weeks, and on Wednesday accused Schulz of trying to hijack debate about the substance of the agreement with his move on Nahles.
Schulz will step down after the members’ vote, and on Wednesday recommended members back Nahles for party leader at a subsequent congress.
Nahles emerged as Schulz’s heir apparent last month after he made a lackluster 57-minute speech in which he boasted about having a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron as he urged SPD delegates to agree to let coalition talks proceed.
When members of the Jusos took the podium and argued passionately against a coalition, the momentum in the congress hall seemed to be swinging their way.
Then came Nahles. Like a sports coach ripping into her team after a poor first half, she cursed, pounded her chest, thumped the podium and implored - almost ordered - the delegates to back the coalition talks.
“We will negotiate until the other side squeals!” she screamed to cheers from the delegates, who then voted by 362 to 279 to press ahead with negotiations.
Bild wrote that Nahles was the only person in the SPD to show leadership, “while the men around her just watch”. The newspaper Die Zeit lauded her vigor and energy and compared her to U.S. television star Oprah Winfrey.
“If Emmanuel Macron had half a brain, he would get Andrea Nahles’s number and call her three times a day,” it wrote.
On the left of the SPD, Nahles has fostered close links to trade unions and is herself a member of IG Metall, Germany’s biggest.
She made improving the rights of workers a hallmark of her tenure in the Labour Ministry in the ‘grand coalition’ of 2009-2013 and spearheaded some of that government’s key projects such as introducing Germany’s first nationwide minimum wage.
Keen to show she understands the needs of manual workers, Nahles also reformed the pension system to allow some people to retire at 63 - a project she defended by referring to the shoulder, back and knee problems her father suffered after a lifetime working in construction.
“I get hopping mad when I hear professor-type people sitting in offices talking about taking pensions at 70!” she said.
Known as a straight-talker, Nahles grabbed headlines in September - when the SPD was still hoping to stay in opposition - by bluntly vowing to hit conservatives “squarely in the jaw” after four years as their junior partner.
But she has also won respect from conservatives including Merkel for her expertise and ability to find compromises, not least during the two previous ‘grand coalitions’ since 2005.
Participants in the latest coalition talks said her negotiating prowess had proved a sharp contrast to Schulz’s long-winded monologues.
“Andrea Nahles is both a hammer and an anvil - she can dish it out but she can also take it,” Schulz, 62, said on Wednesday as he nominated her, saying the party needed younger leaders to reinvent itself before the next election in 2021.
If she were to run for chancellor then, Nahles would also have the advantage, as a non-member of the cabinet, of not being too closely associated with the new government.
Nahles wrote in her school yearbook that she wanted to be “housewife or chancellor”.
She joined the SPD at 18 and helped found a branch in her small village of Weiler in the hilly Eifel region in western Germany before rising through the party’s ranks, and taking over as its general secretary in 2009.
After September’s election, she became the SPD’s parliamentary floor leader, the first woman to hold that role for the party.
A Roman Catholic mother of one, but separated from her art historian husband, Nahles studied German literature and politics, writing her master’s thesis on the role of catastrophes in love stories. In 2009, she wrote a book with the title: “Woman, Devout, Left-Leaning - What’s important to me”.
Nahles, who is partial to German wines and driving fast, enjoys riding horses and commutes between Berlin and Weiler, where she lives on a farm that belonged to her great-grandparents.
additional reporting by Paul Carrel and Holger Hansen; Editing by Kevin Liffey