German election threat eases as SPD signals it will discuss backing Merkel

Martin Schulz holds talks with president as figures in party back grand coalition

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meets SPD leader Martin Schulz. Photograph: Jesco Denzel /Government’s Press Office

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meets SPD leader Martin Schulz. Photograph: Jesco Denzel /Government’s Press Office

 

Germany’s Martin Schulz has signalled his Social Democratic Party (SPD) may be willing to discuss supporting a fourth Merkel government in some form, sparing the country a snap election.

After Sunday’s coalition talks collapsed, Mr Schulz discussed political options on Thursday with President Frank Walter Steinmeier, a former SPD minister.

Mr Steinmeier has met all political leaders in recent days, urging them to respect the will of voters by exhausting all realistic options for a new government.

On Monday, the SPD leader was the first politician to engage in what political observers call rule-out-itis of coalition options.

He dismissed the idea of a third grand coalition with Dr Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

That pleased some supporters, who say sharing power with the centrist Dr Merkel has proven fatal for SPD political support. But other senior SPD figures were furious by this line and have openly challenged it – and, by extension, the party leader.

The SPD’s conservative wing has been the loudest proponent of another grand coalition – Germany’s third since 2005. They are nervous that another election will push the SPD even lower than its September result of 20.5 per cent – its worst result of the postwar era.

“If nothing else is possible then we’ll have to think of another grand coalition,” said Karl Lauterbach, the party’s health spokesman. “Of course we want to help Germany and we haven’t ruled out anything.”

High price

With Angela Merkel, Germany’s acting chancellor, running out of political options, many senior SPD figures see an opportunity to extract from her a high political price for their Bundestag support.

Some would like to see greater social spending, others want Berlin to show greater support for French euro zone reform proposals.

But, two months after Germany’s federal election, the road to a new government remains as unclear as ever. Even if the SPD opens the door to a fourth Merkel term, the party is divided over whether to enter a formal coalition or support a minority government from the opposition benches.

Stephan Weil, the SPD head of a new grand coalition with the CDU in the western state of Lower Saxony, warned on Thursday that minority deals lead to “fragile” governments. “I cannot remember any time that such a thing was crowned with glory,” he said.

Eastern German SPD officials beg to differ, pointing to the “Magdeburg Model”: an eight-year minority arrangement in eastern Saxony-Anhalt, where the SPD government was tolerated by the Left Party.

The idea of a minority pact is gaining ground in Berlin after Ralf Stegner, an influential SPD figure from northern Germany, said his party “wanted neither a grand coalition nor fresh elections”.

Nuanced statements

Other party figures, in particular the SPD Bundestag leader Andrea Nahles, have made similarly nuanced statements that leave a minority option open.

Sensing growing pressure, Mr Schulz has now shifted his position and told party officials he was “sure we will, in the next days and weeks, find a good solution for the country”.

But that strategy shift leaves the SPD leader the task of uniting a party now divided three ways: opposition, grand coalition or supporting a minority Merkel administration.

In the end, the SPD is likely to allow party rank-and-file to decide on the matter, possibly as early as their regular party conference in two weeks’ time.

Leading German legal experts argue that the lack of precedent for a minority government at federal level does not make it unconstitutional.

“It wouldn’t be a catastrophe,” said Prof Ulrich Battis, a constitutional lawyer to the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily. Quite the opposite, he said: refusing that option and forcing fresh elections could make a “state crisis a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Over in Dr Merkel’s CDU camp, the prospect of clinging to power has eased the party’s shock after Sunday’s collapse in talks with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens.

On Thursday leading Merkel allies began a very public wooing of the SPD, ideally for a third grand coalition. “The economically strongest country in Europe cannot show itself to be a political dwarf,” said Volker Kauder, CDU Bundestag floor leader.

Meanwhile Green Party coleader Katrin Göring-Eckardt said she could not imagine her party joining a minority Merkel administration – “for the moment”.