SPD general secretary: rise of an uncomfortable

Status: December 3rd, 2021 2:46 p.m.

He was the comrades’ enfant terrible and played a major role in ensuring that the SPD will soon appoint the chancellor. Kevin Kühnert is now to become the party’s general secretary. It’s the story of a rapid ascent.

By Moritz Rödle, ARD capital studio

It’s the party congress in December 2017. Jamaica has just burst and the SPD is faced with the decision: Again GroKo or new elections? Kevin Kühnert has not been chairman of the Juso for very long, and yet he is keeping the party establishment in suspense in particular.

Moritz Rödle
ARD capital studio

When Kühnert speaks at the numerous party congresses of the SPD in those days and weeks, one can see petrified faces on the presidium bench. At the party congress in December, Kühnert gave a speech that many who were there for years will remember. At one point he says: “We who should, want and have to take on responsibility here in five, ten, 20 years, have an interest in seeing what’s left of this shop!”

This danger was real at the time; at this point in time, quite a few observers assumed that, like many European sister parties, including the German social democracy, threatened with insignificance. Kühnert comes from an SPD parental home, he is attached to the SPD and at this point is seriously worried about the party. But the Juso boss loses the fight for GroKo. The SPD decides to govern with the Union. Kühnert does not give up.

“Nikolaus is GroKo-Aus”

On the contrary: he takes his quote literally and seeks responsibility in the SPD. When Andrea Nahles resigned from the position of party and parliamentary group chairman in 2019, his chance came. He first considers whether he will run as a possible party leader himself, but decides against it. Instead, he supports the candidacy of Saskia Esken and Norbert-Walter Borjans.

Under the motto “Nikolaus is GroKo-Aus”, the Jusos are successfully campaigning for the two anti-establishment candidates. After the decision there is another dispute in the SPD. Boldly wants to become party vice, others want to prevent that. In the end, an agreement was reached on enlarging the presidium. Kühnert took on responsibility. And not after five years, but after two.

The change of the SPD

From there the miraculous transformation of the SPD begins. Kühnert is not uninvolved in this. His relationship with Secretary General Lars Klingbeil grows closer over time. Both are fans of FC Bayern, an atypical passion in the SPD, both want to become something in and through the SPD. The two are now appearing together in public more and more often, among other things, they have a joint broadcast on Instagram. And another SPD man is closely involved in the Kühnert-Klingbeil network: SPD parliamentary deputy Matthias Miersch.

Unlike Klingbeil, Miersch and Kühnert come from the left wing of the party. The three men often coordinate and advise one another. Miersch is important for Kühnert, but the friendship with the conservative Klingbeil is more important for the party. The connection calms the wing dispute in the SPD. The SPD remains in the GroKo under Esken and Walter-Borjans and even nominates the often unloved Olaf Scholz as candidate for chancellor in the summer of 2020. Kühnert is only involved in this decision in the last few meters. He is clearly angry about that.

It turns out that the party leaders have emancipated themselves from their supporters. Nevertheless, Kühnert remains loyal. He tries to capture the criticism that comes from the Juso side of Scholz’s personality. With success. The mood in the party quickly calmed down. Kühnert manages to get the Jusos to campaign for the formerly unloved candidate. It becomes evident that Kühnert has developed further.

Intra-party alliances

No more fundamental opposition, instead inner-party alliances. Kühnert has not been the Juso boss since the beginning of 2021. In September he was elected to the Bundestag and even won his constituency directly. When he gave his first speech in the Bundestag, he was wearing a jacket, something that had rarely been seen in previous years. Kühnert has arrived and has also played a major role in ensuring that the SPD will soon be the Chancellor again. Now comes the big career leap.

As General Secretary, Kühnert has to speak for the SPD even when everyone else can duck. The political scientist Thorsten Faas sees this as a test, not least because his predecessor, Klingbeil, who is much appreciated in the party, will now be his boss. The personal good relationship between the two will certainly be helpful.


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