It ain’t over yet. Yes, on February 7, Chancellor Angela Merkel finally reached an agreement with Germany’s main center-left party, the Social Democrats (SPD), to continue a “grand coalition” with her own conservatives. That is an achievement, given that 136 days have passed since the election. But for the agreement to take effect and a new government to be sworn in, the SPD must now put the deal before its members, who get to vote up or down on March 3. And by all appearances, the Social Democrats could turn the agreement down.
The SPD is in a dilemma. Its leader, Martin Schulz, agreed to step in and hold coalition talks only after first insisting that his party – after its worst result since World War II in the election – would go into opposition. Many in the SPD, especially its youth organisation, blasted their leader for his change of heart.
So Mr. Schulz agreed that the party’s members, a bit more than 460,000, will have the final say on any coalition pact. In this, he followed a precedent set in 2013. Back then, 76 percent voted in favor of a “grand coalition.” This time, the vote looks too close to call.
Even a preliminary vote in January by delegates to a party convention turned out uncomfortably close: Only 56 percent of those present voted to enter negotiations. The left-wingers, in particular, complained that their leaders had failed to score big points in areas such as immigration (where they would like to let in more people), taxes (where they would like to tax the rich more and the poor less), and health (where they would like all Germans to get equal treatment, whether privately or publicly insured).
“...ending a vicious circle of grand coalitions...”
Kevin Kühnert, the 28-year-old head of the SPD’s Jusos youth organization, eloquent in style and a true believer, even issued a passionate plea for new members to join the party in order to kill the coalition. More than 24,000 people did sign up, presumably including many who heeded his call and now plan to vote No.
The concept of a member ballot is controversial in German politics. The SPD won just over 20 percent of the votes on September 24. Yet a simple majority of the SPD’s 460,000 members now hold in their hands the fate of a country with nearly 62 million eligible voters.
“A binding vote by members of a political party may sound democratic, but I view it as undemocratic,” said Christine Landfried, political scientist and senior fellow at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “In our parliamentary democracy, it is the people who elect their representatives who in turn elect the government. And because parliamentarians represent the people, they cannot be bound by a membership vote when electing the government.”
The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is currently looking into complaints on whether the member vote is actually legal. So far, the court has rejected two of the five lodged complaints, without an explanation. While some constitutional law experts see a membership vote as potentially obstructing the free and unfettered exercise of parliamentarians’ duties, others say courts can’t stipulate how parties form a consensus internally.
For the SPD, forming a consensus on another grand coalition is shaping up into a major brawl among the rank and file. “The SPD needs to develop a new image and to push for our own agenda, which simply is not possible in another coalition with Merkel,” said Markus Raub, the 52-year-old chairman of the SPD city council group in Düsseldorf, the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state and an SPD stronghold.
Meanwhile, SPD leaders are falling out of favor with voters. During the coalition talks, the party dipped to 18 percent, an all-time low, according to the pollster Forsa. If elections were held today, with a voter turnout of 76 percent, the SPD would win just 14 percent. “The decision by the party leadership to let members vote on another coalition government with Merkel was risky, just as it was in 2013,” Manfred Güllner, the head of Forsa, told Handelsblatt Global.
Should SPD members vote against another grand coalition, Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will still formally propose a chancellor, almost certainly Ms. Merkel. Her Christian Democratic party won more votes in the election than any other. If this candidate fails to win an absolute majority in parliament in a first vote, a second is held. If there is still no absolute majority, a third vote follows, requiring only a relative majority (a plurality). After that, the president must decide whether to appoint the elected candidate as the new chancellor of a minority government or to dissolve parliament and call for new elections.
Ms. Merkel has made it known she has no interest in leading a minority government, even though it has worked well in other democracies. German economists would indeed prefer a minority government to a renewed grand coalition, according to a survey conducted by the ifo Institute. They believe that this coalition will not cut taxes enough, and will cave in too much to French demands in reforming the euro zone.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global based in Düsseldorf. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org