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Germany's Social Democrats debate future in Merkel coalition

Germany's Social Democrats debate future in Merkel coalition

Although an immediate end to the coalition with Merkel's conservatives is off the table, the SPD must still decide which direction to take — and how far left it wants to go — after a series of brutal electoral losses.

Germany's embattled center-left Social Democrats (SPD) kicked off their three-day party conference in Berlin on Friday, as the party meets to decide the next move under its new leaders.

The surprise election of two little-known members from the party's left wing as the SPD's new leaders sparked concerns about the collapse of Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government. They've since walked back calls for an immediate exit from the alliance — but it's unclear how long that will hold if the party turns further to the left.

What's at stake?

  • Coalition-skeptics Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken are due to be confirmed as the party's new leaders.
  • Members will debate about what concessions they want from conservatives to continue in the coalition until 2021.
  • A shift to the left could be on the horizon if youth-wing leader Kevin Kühnert is elected as one of the party's new deputy leaders.
  • Tensions could run high among the SPD's 600 delegates after party heads backtracked on a promise to put the future of the coalition up to a vote.
  • Who are the new leaders?
  • Norbert Walter-Borjans, known as the "Robin Hood for taxpayers," is a former finance minister of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The 67-year-old trained economist was known for cracking down on tax evaders in the state.
  • Saskia Esken, a 58-year-old trained IT specialist, has been a federal lawmaker in Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, since 2013. She was mainly known in Berlin for using her skills to help drag Germany into the digital age on parliamentary committees.
  • What's going on with the coalition?
  • Walter-Borjans and Esken emerged as strong critics of the alliance with the conservative CDU/CSU bloc. They'd threatened to pull the SPD out if the conservatives did not renegotiate party of the their coalition agreement — a move firmly rejected by CDU/CSU leaders. They also vowed to put the future of the coalition up to a vote during the SPD's party conference.
  • That threat appears to be off the table following pressure from senior SPD members like Finance Minister Olaf Scholz — who lost the election to lead the party. Instead, the new party leaders reportedly agreed to a draft motion that calls for dialogue with the conservatives on issues including: climate change, raising the minimum wage, and stabilizing the economy.
  • Bleeding support: The party conference comes after a series of dismal electoral results for the SPD, which prompted former leader Andrea Nahles to leave her post in June this year. Current opinion polls put the party at 13%, trailing in fourth place behind Merkel's conservatives, the Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
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