The Resistance

The young German socialist who would ruin Angela Merkel’s plans

Jahresrückblick 2017
The youth war on GroKo. Source: DPA

Advocates of a closer European Union shouldn’t uncork the champagne quite yet. The blueprint for a potential new coalition government in Germany may well involve a significant push for more European integration. But at the same time, an upstart wing inside one of the political parties negotiating to take power in 2018 is resisting noisily, bringing the focus back to domestic politics. If their young leader is reading the party faithful right, then the first round of coalition negotiations may amount to nothing.

There is a lot more procedural work to be done before the so-called grand coalition – between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, its sister party, the Christian Social Union, and the country’s Social Democrats – can even begin to embark on further negotiations to form a new government.

The party leaders agreed to a blueprint for future negotiations late last week. But the decision as to whether negotiations can continue on the basis of that document must now be voted upon by 600 Social Democratic Party, or SPD, delegates at a special conference in Bonn, on January 21.

“How the party delegates vote is still open. I wouldn’t put a firm bet on anyone right now.”

Kevin Kühnert, head of the SPD's youth wing

This week SPD leader, Martin Schulz, is off on a whirlwind national tour to try and convince party members that this is a good idea. His party had been in power as part of a grand coalition, with Ms. Merkel’s party, for the past four years but lost significant support in the 2017 elections. Although the SPD was still the second-largest party in the land, the erosion of their base led many party members to express doubts about becoming the junior partner in power once again. Just a few, short weeks ago, SPD party leadership was adamant about opposing such a partnership.

But even as Mr. Schulz heads off to win over hearts and minds, determined opponents from inside his own party are planning a similar tour. In particular, Mr. Schulz may well run into his colleague, Kevin Kühnert, a 28-year-old Berliner who heads the SPD’s youth wing, on the speaking circuit. Mr. Kühnert is also traveling around the country this week, trying to dissuade his party from joining the new government.

The young Social Democrats – also known as the “Jusos” (short for the German “Jungsozialist”) – already have a motto for what they want, one that refers to their leadership’s perceived duplicity on the issue and their own party’s post-election ambitions: “No grand coalition – for a clear and believable SPD.”

The Jusos won the first battle of their long-running war on the grand coalition at last weekend’s party conference in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. They were part of a coalition of internal groups, mostly from the further left wing of the party, who presented a position paper at the meeting.

The position paper’s basic message: We don’t trust the CDU and the CSU, and it is not possible to govern with them in “a reliable way.”

Kevin Kuehnert, the head of the SPD’s youth wing, speaks during an SPD party convention in Berlin
Leader of the resistance: The head of the SPD’s youth wing, Kevin Kuehnert, speaks during a party convention in Berlin. Source: Reuters

Germany’s foreign minister and senior SPD politician, Sigmar Gabriel, was also at the conference but he disagreed, talking up the benefits of a new, grand coalition. In the end, the less-senior Mr. Kühnert won out: Party members voted narrowly – 52 to 51 – to accept the anti-coalition paper as their official point of view.

It’s a symbolic victory as Saxony-Anhalt will only send six of the 600 delegates to the special conference in Bonn next week. But Mr. Kühnert told interviewers he believes that it’s not just his group and the left wing of the SPD that hold these opinions. Party members are disappointed, he said.

“The promise was made that it wouldn’t just be business as usual,” Mr. Kühnert told the daily Berliner Zeitung on Monday, referring to the SPD’s desires to make a change after election losses. “But this blueprint doesn’t read as though anything will be different.”

While the young Socialists are happy about suggestions for more education funding and more EU, they are upset about other points in the blueprint.

For example, over the past few weeks, the party’s leaders have made issues around health insurance one of the central tenets of SPD policies, Mr. Kühnert explained. “And almost all the leaders of the SPD agreed with that, over the past few weeks. So it is very frustrating to find that there’s not a single word about it to be found [in the blueprint].”

Mr. Kühnert is already getting a lot more attention by taking a stand against the party leadership. A press conference in the Irish embassy, held in Berlin on Monday for international media, was standing room only. Heading the Juso has always been a potentially career-making move: Long before he became German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder chaired the group.

So what does Mr. Kühnert want? “We have no problem talking to the [CDU and CSU] about a minority government,” he explained. He believes that such an arrangement would allow the SPD and CDU to work together on projects that suit them, but also lets them step back, if it is something that doesn’t fit the party’s objectives. The SPD could reclaim its image and direction, he said.

“How the party delegates vote is still open,” the young politician concluded, as country and continent look on anxiously. “I wouldn’t put a firm bet on anyone right now.”

Cathrin Schaer is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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