Coalition Blues

Why the SPD must go into government

Schulz und Nahles
My brain hurts: SPD leader Martin Schulz and party parliamentary leader Andrea Nahles. Source: dpa

As the oldest party in Germany, the Social Democratic Party has often ended up assuming responsibility for the country. As a result, that has damaged the party itself.

A number of factors have put social democracy in a difficult position since September’s disastrous elections: Voter behavior, internal conditions and the failure of negotiators from the first choice of coalition partners, as well as the weak leadership of German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The so-called “grand coalition” (which doesn’t seem particularly grand any more) can certainly be justified by policy in the national interest – but it may also plunge the SPD into the same abyss sister parties have fallen into, in places like France, Norway and the Netherlands. They have not found any ideal way to get out of their paradoxical plight, where the mainstream of European society is now social democratic but where this change has not benefited the pioneers of the “social democratic century.”

Today, Europe’s social democrats have few options; they could turn leftwards, they can navel gaze or they can enter into power as a junior partner. There is no light at the end of the tunnel for them. That is the real reason for this crisis.

It’s all a question of damage control and about choosing the lesser evil, which must mean becoming part of the new government.

Neither a minority government with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in charge, or new elections (both of these, no major dramas in themselves) would enable the SPD to rise like a phoenix from the ashes. After that stage, they would begin to see a real loss of mandate, at state and at municipal level, as well as financial losses and therefore the end of their ability to campaign effectively.

The “red-red-green” option which would have seen the Social Democrats team up with the Left Party and the Greens is gone. Left-wing, populist-nationalist movements, such as those led by the UK’s Jeremy Corbyn or France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the kind Germany’s own Left party is currently ogling, only lead to more dead ends.

The Social Democrats’ medium-term prospects are dark, something Martin Schulz’s apparently helpless leadership only reinforces. Now it’s all a question of damage control and about choosing the lesser evil, which – what else? – must mean becoming part of the new government.

Simply supporting a minority government would destabilize the EU’s most stable nation further, and would offer even less chance for any legislation with a social democratic bent, something critics have already noted in the blueprint for negotiations recently unveiled.

The fixation on this document, filled with rose-colored phrases, is counterproductive. As we know, actual governing is rarely based on those phrases. Instead it is about the executive muddling through or going from task to task in permanent crisis mode. And it’s easy to add something new to a position paper: For example, the energy revolution, working with a new generation, or a tax reform.

Some say the Social Democrats have gone too far left but they have lost the plot. What opponents of the grand coalition call “far left” is actually nothing more than the redistribution of assets, to preserve the privilege of an over-protected middle class. Any genuine anti-capitalist policy would be attacking speculative financiers, the pension gravy train, the tax-dodging Panama and Paradise Papers elites and companies gathering big data for their own ends.

SPD-Chef Schulz in Düsseldorf
Young members of the SPD in Dusseldorf protest against their party entering into a coalition government. Source: DPA

Topics that are worthy of debate for social democrats at the European level could include the following: How to develop sustainable infrastructure for digitalization and how to restore the public service to good health.

Yet the SPD remains fixated on core groups – workers in the industrial sector and the civil service – and is neglecting blatant social injustices. The ones that occur in metropolitan areas where nobody can afford to pay their rent any longer and in desolate back country towns, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has gained ground with their ethnic-cleansing fantasies.

In fact, Europe is the real policy touchstone. Mr. Schulz has made the expansion of the United States of Europe and EU reforms a mainstay of his policy. The opportunity that 2017 offered, to change course and to defy the likes of Putin, Erdogan and Trump, as a newly self-confident international union, is gone – and perhaps for good. The next German government, whomever it may include, must promote more European unity, in the fiscal, social, educational and defensive realms, in order to – as Mr. Macron puts it – offer Europeans an holistic shelter.

A coalition with the conservatives is better for Europe and this is what matters, and much more than a retreat into the opposition. Although there is a price to be paid for this: It means giving up leadership of the opposition, which would have included procedural rights such as speaking privileges and committee chairmanship. It is certainly painful to leave this to the AfD because it gives the right-wingers access to departments like the intelligence services.

Does the SPD even know how to do opposition though? Some have advised it to go that route in order to reinvent itself. But even without an enforced period of introspection, the party leadership is badly in need of renewal. Too many party chairpersons and candidates for chancellor didn’t succeed in their official tasks, and that includes the motivation and mobilization of party members. What became of the “thousands” who supported Mr. Schulz as the party’s new leader at the beginning of 2017?

More than many of its political foes, the SPD is a party made up of its members. It lives and dies on the contributions and the passion of those members. The latter are the SPD’s capital and the last vestiges of that capital should not be wasted in opposing the grand coalition. Opponents of the grand coalition are not providing any alternative to the current party leadership, which is why they won’t be able to move beyond their relatively small uprising.

If the party’s members leave Mr. Schulz, parliamentary leader Andrea Nahles and others in the lurch, then the SPD will plunge into chaos. No one who is concerned about Germany, and about Europe, can seriously want that to happen.


This story was adapted for Handelsblatt Global from the original German version. To reach the author:

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