SPD gives green light to Merkel coalition

Voters back the party’s second grand coalition with the CDU

The head of the German Social Democrats (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel presents the positive results of the member voting today. SPD members voted whether they agree that the party join into a coalition government with the German and Bavarian Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images

The head of the German Social Democrats (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel presents the positive results of the member voting today. SPD members voted whether they agree that the party join into a coalition government with the German and Bavarian Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU). Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Sat, Dec 14, 2013, 15:47

Almost three months after Germany’s general election, rank-and-file members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have given a green light to a second grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Some 76 per cent of valid votes backed the party’s second grand coalition with the CDU in a decade with some 24 per cent opposed, returning the SPD to office after four years in opposition. The result clears the way for the appointment of a new German cabinet next Tuesday.

The postal ballot of the SPD’s 475,000 members ended on Thursday evening with 396,000 votes returned - a turnout of 78 per cent. Some 31,000 votes were spoiled due to missing documents or other errors. Taken as a percentage of total SPD members, yesterday’s vote in favour showed just 56 per cent of all SPD members in favour of the grand coalition.

“In the 36 years I’ve been a member, I’ve not experienced my party as politically engaged as this,” said SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel in Berlin amid cheering from party volunteers. Thanking them for staying up all night to count the ballot papers - and members for the high participation rate - Mr Gabriel urged the SPD to remain united in the months and years ahead in office.

“Those who voted against are just as good Social Democrats as those who voted in favour,” he added. “What we want to do now in the next four years is show the 24 per cent that the 76 per cent was correct.”

The SPD finished the September 22 election with 25.7 per cent support while the CDU ended 34.1 per cent - leaving Dr Merkel’s party just short of a parliamentary majority.

It took two months for the traditional political rivals to open and conclude coalition negotiations. Since signing the final deal with Dr Merkel, Mr Gabriel spent the last month criss-crossing the country to answer member’s questions about what his negotiators delivered - and failed to deliver - in the 185-page coalition agreement.

At every meeting he made clear his intention with the the grassroots vote: to involve SPD members in a controversial coalition with their traditional rivals rather than suffer the political consequences later.

The endeavour cost the party a reported €1.6 million for ballot papers, printing and postage, newspaper advertisements and other logistical costs. After being collated in Leipzig, the votes were driven to Berlin and counted through the night by 400 volunteers.

The last grand coalition, agreed in 2005 without asking SPD members, ended in 2009 with the SPD’s worst election result in its 150-year history.

Party strategists saw two main reasons for the disaster: a feeling of permanent compromise in alliance with CDU, and a delayed reaction to the unpopular economic reforms of the Schröder era.

At the town-hall meetings, Mr Gabriel pointed out that some 65 per cent of members agree Germany was doing better as a result of the welfare and economic reforms. But, in imposing the reforms, some 62 per cent of members thought the SPD had betrayed its principles.

“This trauma divided the party, the divisions were clear right into the highest ranks,” said Mr Gabriel earlier this week in Osnabrück.

He warned the SPD’s chronic inability to take credit for its own political success remained the party’s biggest danger in a new grand coalition.

With that in mind, SPD leaders ensured the weeks of coalition talks were punctuated with regular leaks of SPD policy successes.

The final programme guarantees no social cuts in the next four years and a guaranteed €20 billion in extra spending for childcare and education, infrastructure and old-age care.

After years of estrangement, German unions are back onside with the SPD after years of estrangement after the SPD’s delivery of a €8.50 statutory minimum wage and a promise to clamp down on abuse of labour market liberalisation.

The SPD’s 50,000-strong youth wing, always more radical than the party mainstream, rejected the coalition deal. They criticised its failure to deliver tax reform promises and attacked expensive pension promises - worth an estimated €11.5 billion in additional payments annually - which they view as a burden on future generations.

Even before the new government takes office, images of cheering voters and endless analysis among news-starved German media organisations gave the SPD a huge media boost in the last days and weeks.

It remains to be see whether that will pay off for the SPD in office, but the grassroots vote already appears to have strengthened Mr Gabriel’s position as SPD leader.

A poll for German public television suggested that 60 per cent of members think he is doing a good job as SPD leader, with just 23 per cent convinced he is doing a bad job.