By Sara Bundtzen
Over five months have passed since Germany’s federal elections, and still the country is without a government. As days have passed – and potential coalition deals have fallen through – prospects of new elections seemed more certain, if not more alarming. According to a recent poll, if German general elections were held next Sunday, the Social Democrats’ share of the electorate would tumble to 15.5 percent, a troubling five-point drop from last September’s election. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose political agenda almost exclusively focuses on heating up immigration debates and breeding Islamophobia, would rise to 16 percent of the electorate. It would thereby surpass Germany’s oldest center-left party.
After her loss in the presidential election, Hillary Clinton rightfully asked herself “What Happened?”. Today, political spectators in Germany may ask themselves the same question. Although the discussion of recent polls should take into account a margin of error, the mere existence of the numbers influence and generate new narratives. Alice Weidel, faction leader of the AfD, reacted on Twitter proclaiming “Wir sind Volkspartei!” (“We are a people’s party!”). This role has been traditionally associated with the SPD and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Indeed, the SPD isn’t alone in its troubles. Conservative Chancellor Merkel’s seemingly never-ending reign is crumbling. She struggles to unite a stable government coalition in the face of increasing discontent among the party base. Merkel is weakened – her party suffered losses of more than eight percentage points in last September’s elections – but she is far from out. On the contrary, the SPD and its former party chief Martin Schulz find themselves neck-in-neck with the AfD.
What to make of this turmoil in the German political landscape?
Bad Taste of Reheating the “GroKo”
An unprecedented five months without a government and fears of fresh elections prompted Merkel and Schulz to walk the miserable path towards yet another grand coalition (“Große Koalition”) uniting left and right, known as “GroKo”. Never before has this prospect been so unpopular.
Eight out of twelve years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship have been possible thanks to coalitions with the SPD. These partnerships have hardly benefited the latter party, however. In the past decade, the SPD has struggled to communicate distinctiveness and small successes to its base. Unable to handle Merkel’s anesthetizing lack of a clear standpoint, she would suddenly take a stance on a trendy issue. Yet, too often new policies compromised the interests of the center-left’s traditional working-class base, allowing the Conservatives to neuter social policy. As a result, the SPD lost its credibility and worse, the trust of voters.
The disastrous outcome of last September’s elections generated an unanimous tenor led by then-party chief Martin Schulz: no more “GroKo” deals. However, as “Jamaica” – the experiment to comprise the interests of CDU/CSU, Greens and Liberals – did not happen, here we are again.
The new 177-paged “GroKo” deal does give concessions on SPD demands, for instance, a ban on the arbitrary use of short-term work contracts. However, the deal provides virtually nothing on other demands like parity between public and private health insurance and a more liberal policy of immigration.
Regarding the distribution of ministries, the SPD secured the prestigious Foreign Office and the powerful Ministry of Finance, as well as labor, family, justice, and environment. The CDU seeks to lead economic affairs, energy, defense, education, health, and agriculture. The CSU would provide the interior minister with an added “Heimat” (home/homeland) portfolio inspired by the Bavarian model to make Germany more “homey”, ie caring for its own citizens. (Yes, it is as revolutionary as it sounds.) Further, the Christian Democrats would retain transport and digital infrastructure, despite various controversial policies by the current minister Alexander Dobrindt (CSU).
Other than the CSU’s introduced debate concerning a federal homeland ministry, a generally weaker SPD footprint, and a sidelined climate policy, the new “GroKo” deal reflects continuity. Others argue that this coalition is better than an unstable minority government, emphazising the challenges of turbulent times in Europe and across the Atlantic.
Horst Seehofer, the CSU party leader, argued, “We found the right answer to the election results that were so difficult for all of us on September 24, by showing that we understood [the message from voters] and that there will be a change to the status quo.”
Martin Schulz and the Credibility Problem
Martin Schulz’s political downfall reached its final chapter after he stepped down as party chief this month following messy internal debates on who would serve as foreign minister in the next GroKo government. Former labor minister Andrea Nahles has been nominated to be the next party leader, pending confirmation by the delegates at the party conference on April 22.
“I depart this office without bitterness or resentment” insisted Schulz, putting on a brave face in front of reporters.
Still, it is hard to believe that he is without bitterness after being slammed as a historical mistake.
Just a year ago, the left praised Schulz and unanimously elected him as the party’s head before sending him into battle against the world’s most powerful woman, Angela Merkel. In truth, it would have required superhuman powers, or at least sufficient campaigning skills, to maintain the hype over the so-called “Schulz effect.” The campaign relied on this firm belief that Martin Schulz was to bring a new spirit of social justice to politics.
But the SPD failed to prepare Schulz to take on Merkel’s non-confrontational campaign strategy. In the end, his efforts resulted in 20.5 percent of the electorate. Following the abysmal defeat, Schulz stepped back from two promises: no more “GroKo” deals and no minister office under a Merkel-led coalition. After negotiating the coalition agreement, Schulz offered to step down as party chief to become the next foreign minister. The mere suggestion provoked a backlash, foremost from within his own party. Former party chief and incumbent foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel told journalists that his little daughter comforted him after the election, saying: “Daddy, don’t be sad, now you’ll have more time for us. That’s better than spending time with the man with the hairy face,” referring to the bearded Schulz. Awkward.
Internal Struggles of the Social Democrats
While Sigmar Gabriel makes headlines as he struggles with his own political future, the SPD continues its enduring process of self-destruction. Martin Schulz, once the shining star who was to end Merkel’s chancellorship, has assumed calamity status. The youth rebels against the old. The party’s base mistrusts its leadership.
More than 460,000 SPD party members are eligible to vote on the “GroKo” deal by March 2. While some observers view the GroKo as a fait accompli, the approval of the party base should not be taken for granted just yet. The SPD’s youth wing, the Jusos, and its chairman, 28-year-old Kevin Kühnert have built a resistance movement to vote against the coalition agreement. The #NoGroKo campaign has been extremely active on Facebook and Twitter, promoting “Stop the grand coalition for a tenner,” the cost of a party membership. Some 25,000 new party members have joined in recent weeks specifically to influence the final vote on governing with Merkel’s conservatives.
“How can [the SPD] break through the vicious circle of always being in a grand coalition?” Kühnert criticised.
The German daily Kieler Nachrichten advised the SPD’s old party elite “to be very quiet and humble, listening to what the hurting member soul has to say.” While the option of a German minority government is historically perceived as unstable and avoidable, Kühnert is not scared by this option and has urged his party to be more daring: For the Social Democrats, four years in opposition may be a chance for reflection and reconnecting with its base.
Germany, often described as the “bastion of stability in Europe,” experiences uncertain times. Neither the government nor society has descended into chaos. On the contrary, the country is subject to democratic decisions, which is welcoming in essence.
But, another “GroKo” government may further bolster the popularity of the right, with the AfD embracing its opposition role that offers no alternatives. No matter the outcome of the Social Democrats’ vote on the deal, the struggle for future direction and leadership has entered the inner circles of Merkel’s government. It remains to see for how long her Chancellorship will endure. ♦
Sara Bundtzen holds a bachelor’s degree in European Studies from the University of Southern Denmark and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Security at PSIA.