After hemming and hawing and against strong opposition from many in the party base, the Social Democrats (SPD) voted Thursday to enter into talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats to form a new grand coalition government – but without committing to a successful conclusion of those negotiations.
The vote came in a tumultuous convention which laid bare the divisions plaguing the party. The lackluster leadership of party chair Martin Schulz was more apparent than ever as he took responsibility for the SPD’s worst-ever postwar results but put himself forward for a renewed term as party leader. He won that vote.
But it was his zigzag course regarding a new grand coalition with Ms. Merkel’s conservatives that was the most divisive. In the immediate aftermath of the September 24 election, the SPD leader summarily rejected any possibility of renewing the coalition, forcing Ms. Merkel into talks with two smaller parties, the Free Democrats and Greens, which ultimately collapsed. It proved impossible even with Ms. Merkel’s demonstrated political skills to bring these two parties under the same umbrella.
There is no law of nature that being in opposition equals a strong SPD and taking part in a coalition equals a weak SPD.
So German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, himself a longtime leader in the SPD, prevailed upon Mr. Schulz to reconsider talks for a grand coalition to avoid either a minority government or new elections, both of which held little appeal for stability-oriented German voters.
But the leader of the party’s Juso youth organization, Kevin Kühnert, met a more enthusiastic response at the convention in a spirited speech rejecting a new coalition. “The renewal of the SPD will take place outside a grand coalition, or it won’t happen,” he said to much more vigorous applause than Mr. Schulz received.
The Juso leader rightly judged the tenor of many of the party members attending the convention. “There cannot be a renewed grand coalition,” said Christian Hass, representing the decision of the party local in Leverkusen. Other militants called out that all the new SPD members would quit if the party entered into a new grand coalition.
The new leader of the SPD caucus in parliament, Andrea Nahles, who was labor minister in the outgoing grand coalition, sought a middle ground by promising tough negotiations if the party decided to go ahead with coalition talks. “There is no law of nature,” she told the convention, “that being in opposition equals a strong SPD and taking part in a coalition equals a weak SPD.”
For his part, Mr. Schulz pledged that party members would be able to vote on any coalition platform that was negotiated. “I give you my guarantee for this procedure,” he said. Even if coalition talks begin next week as planned, this arduous approval process means they will last well into the new year.
In the end, the convention supported the party leaders and gave them a green light to enter talks under the condition that they would not lead automatically to a new coalition. If the parties fail to reach an agreement, the SPD could pledge its support for a minority government – that is, they would vote for Ms. Merkel as chancellor and would support her on issues they agreed with.
The Free Democratic Party chairman, Christian Lindner, on Thursday pledged his support for a minority government, urging the Christian Democrats not to be blackmailed into an agreement with the SPD. Mr. Lindner’s decision to withdraw from the earlier round of coalition talks led to their collapse and to a backlash against his party.
Ms. Merkel, however, who has served two of her three terms as chancellor at the head of a grand coalition, has proven adept at finding middle ground with the SPD. The center-left party is concerned about climate change but not as dogmatic as the environmentalist Greens were about shutting down coal-fired power plants.
Headed by the former president of the European Parliament, the SPD is even more fervent in its support of European integration than Ms. Merkel. At the convention, Mr. Schulz even called for a “United States of Europe” by 2025, which Ms. Merkel was quick to dismiss in favor of focusing on specific areas of cooperation.
Nonetheless, the SPD stance gives her political cover against the more skeptical members of her own party and makes it easier to sit on the fence than Mr. Lindner’s wariness about further integration.
Opponents of the grand coalition say that it is precisely this unity of the two centrist parties that has strengthened the support for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won nearly 13 percent of the vote in the September election and entered into parliament for the first time.
The difficulty in forming a coalition is due also to the refusal of the centrist parties to consider any alliance with either the AfD or the Left, which grew of the old East German Communist Party, even though these two parties now represent more than a fifth of the voters – more together than the SPD.
The Bavarian wing of Ms. Merkel’s conservative alliance, the Christian Social Union, has been riven by the September results, the worst in CSU history, with its support falling to 39 percent because of the new found strength of the AfD. The result put pressure on the CSU to protect its right flank, and forced party leader Horst Seehofer to relinquish his post as Bavarian prime minister to rival Markus Söder. This posed new challenges for Ms. Merkel in the first round of coalition talks as she had to work harder to keep her CDU and the CSU in line, and will likely make the next round more difficult.
A poll out today from the ARD television network found that support for a new grand coalition has grown since the election but is still short of a majority. Some 45 percent now consider a grand coalition as good or very good, but 52 percent see it as less good or bad. The approval rating is up from 33 percent right after the election and 39 percent after the collapse of the first round of coalition talks.
Handelsblatt reporters Heike Anger, Martin Greive and Klaus Stratmann covered the Berlin convention. Darrell Delamaide, an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC, adapted this report into English. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.