SPD leader woos party faithful to back coalition deal

SPD grassroots likeyl to back alliance with Merkel via postal vote

Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel delivers a speech during its regional party conference in Nuremberg on December 1st. Photograph: Timm Schamberger/EPA

Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) Sigmar Gabriel delivers a speech during its regional party conference in Nuremberg on December 1st. Photograph: Timm Schamberger/EPA

Thu, Dec 5, 2013, 01:00

Red scarves knotted against the bitter cold, hundreds of SPD rank-and-file members scurry along the dark Hamburg street.

Passing a sign for a “friendship” agency, offering “partnership and matchmaking services”, they gather in a packed ballroom with a gold roof and glistening chandelier. Every seat is taken when SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel arrives to propose his controversial political match: a second grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Just shy of an absolute majority, the CDU turned to the SPD after September’s election. Gabriel drove a hard bargain in talks with an ace up his sleeve: a promise to put any final coalition deal to a vote by rank- and-file members.

Polls suggest about two thirds of the 474,000 SPD members support the 185- page coalition agreement but, ahead of a result expected on December 17th, Gabriel is taking no chances.

Many SPD critics argue that the party made too many compromises in coalition negotiations; others oppose an alliance with the CDU outright, arguing the party has barely recovered from its last Merkel co-habitation, which ended in 2009.

But Gabriel, a strong speaker and persistent politician, tells his Hamburg audience the biggest danger the SPD faces is its chronic inability to take credit for its political successes – from the divisive, decade-old reforms of Gerhard Schröder that returned Germany to economic health, or measures pushed by SPD ministers in the last grand coalition that absorbed the worst effects of the 2010 economic crisis.

Selling itself short was the SPD’s biggest danger in a new grand coalition, he said, not the CDU leader.

Angela Merkel is not a black widow who waits in her web for the SPD to come along then eats them up,” he said.

Helping Gabriel now is the perception that, in coalition talks, the SPD was on the policy offensive and the CDU on the back foot.

Extra spending
The SPD secured a promise for 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.

Another argument in favour, Gabriel says, is that German unions are back on side with the SPD after years of estrangement. They welcome the SPD’s delivery of a statutory minimum wage of €8.50, with some conditions, and an undertaking to clamp down on abuse of the SPD’s decade-old labour market liberalisation.

Gabriel dismisses critics who say the coalition deal waters down Germany’s ambitious renewable energy targets, saying he wants the programme to remain on track but only if energy remains affordable.

With applause still more polite than enthusiastic, Gabriel wraps up with a final argument: he turned an election defeat into a coalition programme with a clear social democratic profile.

“Can we afford not to push this progress for the little people simply because we feel the progress isn’t big enough?” he asks.

The mood in the ballroom is of grudging support but, if the remarks from the floor are any indication, a deal is not in the bag.

An elderly Turkish-born man criticises the SPD for breaking its campaign promise to deliver dual citizenship for all non-EU citizens resident in Germany. In negotiations, Gabriel says, the CDU insisted on limiting the privilege to those born after 1990 – shutting out generations of so-called guest workers and their children.

“I find it a paradox that [as an SPD member] I’m entitled to vote on this coalition deal but not in the general election,” said the elderly Turkish man.

No mention of Europe
Another speaker suggested that Gabriel’s failure to even mention Europe at the conference did not bode well.

“Germany has pursued policies that have divided more than united Europe,” he said. Two young SPD activists agree, urging members to reject the CDU alliance and embrace a three-way coalition with the Greens and Left Party.

You don’t have to look hard in the Hamburg ballroom to find scores of undecided SPD members – or outright critics of another grand coalition.

“I’m opposed because these SPD leaders aren’t up to much,” said Dieter Wiktorowitz (70), a SPD member since 1990. “Like last time, Merkel will have them for breakfast and we’ll be worse off than before.”