Despite all the domestic criticism of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy, her conservative Christian Democrats remain the strongest political force. If she decides to run for a fourth term in the fall 2017 election, few political pundits will put money on her losing.
Germany’s three left-of-center parties, including the Social Democrats who have been junior partners in a coalition with her since 2013, are well aware that the only way to unseat her may be to form an alliance.
A coalition between the SPD, Greens and Left Party, dubbed R2G (an acronym for red-red-green), would be unprecedented nationally but not at the state level, where the first R2G government was formed in the eastern state of Thuringia in 2014.
The SPD has long refused to countenance a national coalition with the staunchly pacifist Left Party, which is categorically opposed to military missions abroad, wants to dissolve NATO and calls for sharp increases in government spending as well as shorter working hours.
But Ms. Merkel’s dominance, combined with positive experiences gained in regional coalitions between the SPD and Left Party such as in Berlin city government between 2002 and 2011, have brought them closer together.
With one year to go before the federal election, efforts are underway to probe common ground for a possible future government, but it’s not going particularly smoothly.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel caused irritation among his party colleagues when it emerged that he planned to hold secret talks on Tuesday evening with representatives of the Greens and Left Party to sound out “perspectives for 2017.”
“We must make our own profile as clear as possible. And we must look at what the options are for taking power.”
That coincided with a scheduled meeting of no fewer than 90 lawmakers from the three parties to discuss precisely the same project. SPD members were at a loss to explain why Mr. Gabriel chose to organize his own meeting.
The indiscretion followed the leak of a telephone conversation between Mr. Gabriel and Left Party co-Chairman Bernd Riexinger about the possibility of jointly backing former Protestant bishop Margot Kässmann to become Germany’s next president, a largely ceremonial post that is furnished with some constitutional powers.
When the suggestion became public, Ms. Kässmann declined, to the embarrassment of the two politicians who had failed quite clumsily in an attempt to align the parties on a significant political project: choosing the president.
SPD members insisted on Tuesday that the clash of meetings was coincidental.
“It’s not a rival meeting,” said SPD lawmaker Axel Schäfer, who initiated the wider gathering of lawmakers. “Our party chairman regular meets leading people from the other parties for meals or coffee.”
Until now, the many small groups in which the SPD, Greens and Left Party have been holding talks have had little more than niche status as the SPD has been preoccupied with governing. But with just 11 months to go until the election, the talks are gaining prominence.
“We’re coming out of the back rooms,” said Mr. Schäfer. “We must make our own profile as clear as possible. And we must look at what the options are for taking power.”
He said the growing threat of far-right populism and the election of the president in February by a special parliamentary assembly to find a successor for incumbent Joachim Gauck had opened a window of opportunity for a left-leaning alliance. An R2G government could finally enable the SPD to pursue its principal aims of promoting greater social equality, he said.
The party has been locked in two coalitions as junior partner to Ms. Merkel’s conservatives since 2005. They have been awkward marriages which led many voters to abandon the SPD. The party is languishing just above 20 percent in opinion polls while the conservatives are around 30 percent. The right-wing Alternative for Germany is scoring up to 15 percent, ahead of the Left Party and Greens at 11 and 12 percent respectively.
The Greens too see benefits in a left-leaning coalition next year although some of them favor an alliance with Ms. Merkel.
“It’s good for us Greens to have as many options as possible,” Green lawmaker Dieter Janecek told Handelsblatt. Regular talks with the SPD and Left Party could help to establish whether there’s a basis for forming a future government, he said.
But he added that there were rifts on foreign policy where Left Party members have been calling for closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A deputy leader of the Left Party, Caren Lay, said: “We’re not holding coalition talks today, but we’re getting to know each other and want to build up a constructive and united channel of communication. We need a change of policies. The debate about reforms must come from the left.”
The R2G government in Thuringia is seen as a test case for a possible national government, but there are some pretty high hurdles in the form of policy differences and the lack of public support. If the SPD can’t improve on its current showing of 22 percent, an R2G alliance won’t get a majority.
That explains why some party members are playing down its likelihood. The general secretary of the SPD, Katarina Barley, didn’t sound exactly euphoric about Tuesday’s talks. “At the parliamentary group level we have a lot of contact with our conservative colleagues,” she said. “We have a bit less contact with the others, that’s the reason for this format, to set up an exchange of views there too.”
Besides, Mr. Gabriel, who himself has yet to declare whether he will run for chancellor next year, has said he doesn’t want the SPD to campaign as part of a left-leaning bloc of parties.
He regards R2G as a real option — but he wants the party to keep all its options open.
Unless the SPD gains ground, those options are looking pretty limited.