Will the SPD last in Germany's new grand coalition?

Written by Yuriy Sheyko on 5 March 2018

German flag | Photo credit: Press Association

Germany's recent political turmoil prompted renewal amonth the country's main parties - except for the SPD, writes Yuriy Sheyko.

German citizens voted for political renewal last September. The parties of the governing coalition received 14 per cent support less compared to the previous elections. Polls reaffirm this lack of interest in the so-called grand coalition. Still, German citizens are getting the same government, consisting of Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian counterpart CSU, and Social Democrats (SPD).

On Sunday 4 March, the SPD announced the results of an inner-party vote. More than 460,000 members were asked if they supported the grand coalition. 66 per cent of those who participated voted in favour. As a consequence, Angela Merkel may be granted a fourth term as Chancellor as early as 14 March.

Although the SPD’s ‘yes’ outcome was expected, this result surprised many in Germany. Almost no one in the SPD was happy about the coalition with Merkel. Despite a number of achievements that were passed largely thanks to the SPD - such as introducing minimal wage - the last four years of this union cost the SPD party five percentage points of support and caused it to struggle to find its discernible political profile.

This is why the word ‘renewal’ became a real mantra for the SPD. The first attempt was made at the beginning of last year, when Sigmar Gabriel abdicated his party leadership in favour of Martin Schulz. Although the latter was a relatively new face in Berlin, he represented the same old guard and the same generation as Gabriel. 

After the SPD received its worst result since the war, Schulz made renewal his core priority. However, the collapse of the talks between the CDU/CSU, liberal FDP, and the Greens meant the Social Democrats could not rest in the opposition. Several mistakes and failure to renew the party led to Schulz’s resignation last month. His designated successor, Andrea Nahles, is yet to be confirmed.

The first German party to renew itself were the Greens. They showed themselves as a serious and responsible political force in the coalition talks. They also elected two new leaders - Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock - in a move to overcome the traditional division between the realist and fundamentalist wings.

The second party to renew itself was the CDU. The concessions made to two other parties, like giving financial ministry leadership to the SPD in exchange of the less prominent economy ministry, led to criticism. 

To counter this, Merkel made quite an unexpected move with the team she proposed for ministers. Besides Merkel, only two CDU cabinet members out of six will remain in the next government.

The new team will be also young - as Merkel pointed out, she'll be the only one over 60.

The Christian Democrats welcomed the move and party delegates voted with a broad majority for the coalition. It was the first time ever that not the CDU leadership, but a party convention had a final say on the fate of the coalition.

By bringing new faces to prominent positions, Merkel has provided an answer to another issue that has received much attention lately - who will be her successor. There have been no obvious favourites until now. 

Through various appointments, Merkel has surrounded herself with possible contenders to succeed her - new CDU Secretary-General Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Ursula von der Leyen, who is staying on as defence minister, future ministers of agriculture Julia Klöckner and of health Jens Spahn (a 37-year old conservative who became one of Merkel’s most vocal critics).

It remains to be seen whether the SPD follows suit; it has yet to announce its ministerial candidates.

The coalition agreement calls for a fresh start for the EU, a new dynamic and new solidarity for Germany. However, it doesn’t pave the way for any major changes. High-speed internet throughout the whole country by 2025, more money for R&D - up to 3.5 per cent of GDP by 2025, 15,000 more police personnel and 8000 additional positions for nursing staff are among the main goals. 

The SPD failed to press through such changes as creation of a unified system for medical insurance or putting a stop to the practice of unfounded fixed-term job contracts. On the other hand, the agreement includes SPD demands such as tax reliefs for people with lower income or support for the construction of 1.5 million social housing units.

This coalition will need to deliver on those messages fast, otherwise it may not last 3.5 years till the next elections. At the SPD’s insistence, the agreement foresees that at the end of 2019, parties will evaluate the government’s performance. If the Social Democrats see themselves still lagging behind in the shadow of Merkel and the CDU, they may just quit.


About the author

Yuriy Sheyko is journalist based in Germany and Brussels

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