Germany’s Social Democrats vote for formal coalition talks with Angela Merkel
DELEGATES of Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD) have voted by 56.4% for formal coalition negotiations with Angela Merkel’s centre-right alliance. Muted cheers greeted the announcement that 362 members of the 642-strong college had endorsed further talks with the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU). The result at the party’s extraordinary conference in Bonn could spell the beginning of the end of Germany’s months of coalition wrangling—and herald a new government for Europe’s largest economy by Easter.
The winning argument was generally put without great enthusiasm. After its worst election result in the history of the federal republic last September the SPD had initially embraced a period of renewal in opposition, but was forced to reckon with a new “grand coalition” (or GroKo) when talks between the CDU/CSU, the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens collapsed in December. Polite applause greeted Martin Schulz, the party’s leader, as he hailed SPD policies in the preliminary blueprint for government agreed with the CDU/CSU, like a guaranteed pensions level and increased child benefits. Name-checking Emmanuel Macron, he said SPD ministers would ensure “an end to a German Europe policy that only knows one word: no.”
By contrast, speakers opposing a new GroKo elicited cheers and standing ovations from parts of the hall as they railed against another turn with Mrs Merkel and “more of the same”. Kevin Kühnert, the leader of the Young Socialists and the most prominent GroKo opponent, compared recent German governments to a pub, with the SPD constantly picking up the CDU/CDU’s drinks bill. It fell to Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s leader in the Bundestag, to give the storming pro-GroKo speech that Mr Schulz did not quite produce. “They’ll give us the finger!” she said, of voters’ reaction to new elections forced by the SPD.
The result freights the SPD’s negotiators in the coming talks with high expectations. Time after time, pro-GroKo speakers, including Mr Schulz, insinuated that the party could win significant new concessions from the CDU/CSU; for example a commitment to greatly reducing the use of short-term contracts in the labour market. Ms Nahles pledged to negotiate “until the pips sqeak!” But Mrs Merkel has said that the “cornerstones” of the preliminary blueprint cannot be renegotiated. There is a real risk that the SPD's roughly 440,000 members—who will have the final say on its participation in a government, in a ballot perhaps in late February or early March—will end up feeling disappointed by the coalition deal and vote it down. That 43.5% of delegates said "no" today was a remarkable achievement for the anti-GroKo campaign, which will now fight on.
Today’s vote was probably the higher hurdle: members are ultimately pragmatists, stresses one insider, and will be inclined to support the leadership. It is more likely than not that Germany will have a new government by Easter. The SPD can be expected to insist on the powerful finance ministry, the better to push forward euro-zone reform. One candidate for the job would be Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg. Meanwhile Mr Schulz, a former European Parliament president, is said to have his eyes on the foreign ministry. All of which would be good news for Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, who has invested much political capital in obtaining German cooperation with his vision for further European integration—and has in the SPD a sympathetic partner in Berlin.
A new GroKo would be scrappier than the last one. That today’s result was relatively narrow, and indeed was ever in question, illustrates the rebellious mood in the SPD. Its leadership is relatively weak and has promised to create clearer dividing lines in any new government, stand up to the CDU/CSU more and thoroughly renew the party. If it fulfils these, that will be good for German democracy. The best argument for a “no GroKo” vote was, and is, that it would disrupt the sleepy consensus at the heart of this country’s politics. Hopefully the SPD can pursue that end from within the next government too.