Since 1946, the SPD leads the government in Bremen, but that could be over after the state election in May. Mayor Carsten Sieling has been working silently in a red-green coalition since 2015, but his poll numbers are bad. The financial expert is considered too nice. The crisis of the federal SPD puts a strain on the party left who wants reforms to Hartz IV and uses Bremen as an example. A conversation about why Germany should look at the smallest state
TIME ONLINE: Mr. Sieling, everyone is talking about the state elections in the East, only Bremen is always forgotten in the list of super-election year. Curse or blessing?
Carsten Sieling: We have more than 70 years of SPD government to defend, so everyone should look. Bremen has the wrong image of being poor and socially weak. But we have overcome the hard years. I want to promote our successes: in 2017 we had the biggest economic growth of all federal states, unemployment is below ten percent. This is higher than elsewhere, but you have to pay attention to where we come from. We have created 20,000 new jobs since 2015, have our budgets under control and will meet the debt brake in 2020. Some years ago, there was still some doubt as to whether that could be done.
TIME ONLINE: In the latest survey SPD and in Bremen actually chronically weak CDU still the same, the Greens only just behind. This looks like a change of mood. Why is that?
Sieling: The years of household emergency have not left their mark on humans. Bremen is one of these "big cities in stress": high long-term unemployment, high population growth, high migration rate and under-financed public budgets. And clearly, the situation of the SPD in the Bund is not easy. For us, this means that we need to make it even clearer how positive the development in Bremen is and what our prospects are. We have modernized our citizen's offices, today you no longer see a queue. We've strengthened the police, created thousands of new daycare centers, and pioneered digitization. To name just a few examples.
TIME ONLINE: Maybe it's just anachronistic that a party has ruled for 70 years. Does not the desire for change belong to democracy?
Sieling: The Bremen SPD is at everyone state election again confirmed as the party that is to lead the government. Of course there was also change, because there were all coalitions: SPD-alone government, a traffic light, big coalition and now red-green.
TIME ONLINE: Red-Green has been ruling for almost twelve years now.
Sieling: That's a stability that many long for today. In our small federal state with its very different social milieus, it is important to ensure cohesion. The first post-war mayor has shaped the beautiful formula of the alliance of workers and merchants. This could be worded differently today, but that is the task: keeping society together. In Bremen, the SPD is still a people's party.
TIME ONLINE: Are not you afraid that the Greens could establish themselves as new SPD?
Sieling: Parts of the Greens in Bremen may flirt with a Jamaican alliance. Overall, we worked well together. But of course I'm fighting electioneering everyone for themselves and I am quite relaxed: I do not recognize the new SPD in the Greens.
TIME ONLINE: Why not?
Sieling: The Social Democrats, the diversity of society and economic growth are equally in the focus of the SPD. The Greens have the clientele with the highest average income. You can make a policy that you have to allow yourself. I have nothing against health food stores and, above all, nothing against healthy nutrition, but my interest is that we can maintain a healthy diet in the breadth that is eaten well in the schools. This is more important than the expensive health food store around the corner. And by the way: Even the SPD makes environmental policy, because we were always pioneers in Bremen.
TIME ONLINE: The Bremen AFD candidate Frank Magnitz was attacked after a New Year celebration. Does the act affect the social climate in the city?
Sieling: The AFD is so far weaker in Bremen than nationwide and that's a good thing. We are a cosmopolitan federal state. The Senate has always clearly positioned itself that violence against dissenters does not work. In the wake of the attack on Mr Magnitz, there were rallies by the AFD and, at the same time, one against the right instrumentalization of the act – both non-violent.
TIME ONLINE: Some say the authorities in Bremen did not pursue left-wing violence as strictly as right-wing extremists.
Sieling: The accusation is as old as it is wrong, there is no evidence at all. Police and security forces consistently investigate in all directions, a special commission was set up, the wanted video was published. The cause of this attack is still open.
TIME ONLINE: What do you mean by that?
Sieling: There is still no final knowledge. We do not know if the attack was politically motivated. There is a claimant letter, but that was most likely wrong. The perpetrators had pulled the hood and are therefore not so easy to identify.
TIME ONLINE: After the hasty resignation of your predecessor Jens Böhrnsen in 2015, you became Prime Minister. This will be her first campaign as a top candidate. Does it bother you that you are considered too nice for the tough political argument?
Sieling: I just do not think much of Basta politics. Success is always a collective effort. It is allowed to stay friendly.
TIME ONLINE: You want to appear in the election campaign as the one who has successfully renovated Bremen?
Sieling: After a decade of harsh austerity, I want to enter a decade of investment in Bremen. But that means not only pouring concrete, but investing it in the minds of people, in social and educational policy.
TIME ONLINE: What do you do when the economic downturn comes?
Sieling: Let's see if anyone ever comes. The German economy is strong. Especially in uncertain times, the state should not shake, but must rely on investment.
TIME ONLINE: Even SPD Federal Finance Minister Olaf Scholz warns of a downturn.
Sieling: If the economy does not grow as fast as in previous years, it will have to be dealt with. But I do not believe in panic. But caution, of course, is the noble task of a federal minister of finance.