Coalition Troubles

SPD leader Martin Schulz bows out

G20-Gipfel – Stellungnahme der SPD
Tell the nice people how wrong you were, Martin. Source: DPA

How abruptly and bitterly a political career can end.

Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, announced on Friday that he would not become foreign minister in the prospective coalition government, amid intense pressure within the party to forego the role. Just two days earlier, the 62-year politician said he would step down as the party’s leader in an effort to convince critics of the renewed alliance with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, especially the party’s youth organization, the Jusos, which vehemently opposes it.

Mr. Schulz faced growing anger from the SPD’s rank and file over his backpedaling. The party leader had previously ruled out forming a new coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc and had even categorically ruled out joining her cabinet.

“I sincerely hope that (my decision to forego joining the new government) will end the personnel debates within the SPD,” Mr. Schulz said in a statement. “My own personal ambitions must be placed behind the interests of the party.”

The former president of the European Parliament held the position of SPD chief for just 11 months, in which time he led the 155-year-old party to its worst election result since WWII, garnering just 20.5 percent of the vote.

Dietmar Woidke, the SPD’s state premier of Brandenburg, welcomed the move but said it came too late. “I believe he made the totally correct decision,” he told Handelsblatt. “But earlier would have been better – for him, the SPD and the public’s view of politics.”

A Forsa poll showed almost three-quarters of Germans thought it would be wrong for Mr. Schulz to become foreign minister while only around a quarter thought that would be the right move.

Mr. Schulz’ announcement follows days of mounting pressure from senior members in his own party, including acting Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who in an earlier interview on Friday publicly criticized Mr. Schulz’ decision to take the helm of the foreign ministry. “It is clearly unfortunate that the public’s regard for my work meant absolutely nothing to the SPD leadership,” said Mr. Gabriel, the most popular politician in Germany according to current polls. Johannes Kahrs, the head of the SPD’s conservative wing, spoke in favor of keeping Mr. Gabriel in the foreign ministry. “Sigmar Gabriel is a very good foreign minister,” he said. “I wouldn’t understand any other decision.”

“My own personal ambitions must be placed behind the interests of the party.”

Martin Schulz, chairman of the Social Democratic Party

Kevin Kühnert, the 28-year-old head of the Jusos, said Mr. Schulz was to blame for his own downfall with his flip-flopping about going into opposition and then taking on a ministerial portfolio after initially saying no to both. “Martin Schulz caused a lot of upheaval,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a conference.

The Jusos head said he still intended to pursue his campaign against the SPD entering into another coalition as a junior partner with the conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. The next step toward the formation of a German government will see the more than 460,000 members of the SPD have the final say, as they vote on the alliance on March 4.

In a sign of discontent that the coalition has created, many conservatives are also angry with Ms. Merkel. They feel she has paid a high price to renew a coalition with the same old partners. Their concern: By giving away three prized ministerial portfolios to the SPD, she may have handed the struggling party a future while robbing one for her own.

The Social Democrats secured three key posts: finance, foreign affairs and labor. Control of these ministries will give them greater power to pursue their agenda of spending more on Europe and core domestic programs as well as fighting for more social equality. The concessions prompted a cynical tweet from one CDU parliamentarian, Olav Gutting: “At least, we’ve kept the chancellorship.”

The finance and foreign ministers are traditionally highly respected and popular in Germany. But for the Social Democrats, clearly, the biggest prize of all is the finance ministry, which they haven’t controlled in years. The loss of this post, considered second only to the chancellorship, is arguably one the most important outcomes of the coalition talks – if not the most important. The loss could seriously hurt Ms. Merkel’s party when the next federal election comes around in late 2021 and pave the way for a revival of the Social Democrats, bruised by their worst election result in the postwar era.

John Blau is a senior editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: blau@handelsblatt.com

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