Germany’s SPD backs coalition with Merkel’s conservatives

Vote paves way for Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor after months of uncertainty

Andrea Nahles, parliamentary group leader of Germany’s SPD  gives a statement after the result was announced of the her party members’ referendum on whether or not to join a new coalition government.  Photograph: Kay Nietfeld/ AFP/Getty Images

Andrea Nahles, parliamentary group leader of Germany’s SPD gives a statement after the result was announced of the her party members’ referendum on whether or not to join a new coalition government. Photograph: Kay Nietfeld/ AFP/Getty Images

 

Angela Merkel’s five-month marathon for a fourth term neared an end on Sunday morning, when two thirds of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) members backed a return to power.

The result - announced to stony silence in the SPD Berlin headquarters - opens the door to Dr Merkel’s likely final term in office and her third grand coalition since 2005.

“We now have clarity,” said Mr Olaf Scholz, acting SPD leader. “This result gives us the strength we need to enter into government, get the country moving in the right direction and start the process of renewal in the party.”

But the silence in the atrium of the SPD headquarters, and exhausted gazes of members looking on from the balconies, underlined deep ambivalence in the party about the consequences of returning to power yet again.

Almost 450,000 SPD members were entitled to vote and of 362,933 valid postal ballots, some 239,604 members backed entering the grand coalition - 66 per cent support - while 123,329 opposed.

The result will bring relief to Berlin’s neighbours after post-war Germany’s longest ever interregnum kept the continent in a holding pattern since last summer.

Dr Merkel is now likely to be sworn in as chancellor, with SPD and CDU votes, on March 14th.

Her political future hung on the whim of the SPD grassroots after her first attempt to form a coalition - with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and Greens - failed last year.

To avoid fresh elections she wooed back the uncertain SPD to the negotiating table. After two grand coalitions since 2005, and two subsequent electoral drubbings, many SPD members fear a third alliance with Dr Merkel will suck the remaining life out of their party.

Months of emotional debate and tortuous procedural votes, first on a preliminary and final coalition agreement, ended with Sunday’s third vote.

SPD left-wingers and its vocal youth wing wanted to walk away from power and return to the opposition benches, as party leaders promised on September 24th last when the SPD scored its worst federal election result in almost 70 years.

But party leaders changed their minds in recent months, sensing a political opportunity as Dr Merkel’s only real alternative to fresh elections. In coalition talks they secured an expansionist programme for government and the key finance, foreign and labour ministries.

But wrangling over cabinet posts cost the enfeebled SPD leader Martin Schulz his job after just 11 months. That row, and a botched transition to a new leader, have only magnified doubters’ fears that the party has lost its way - and an opportunity in opposition to return to its left-wing roots.

Leverage

Despite the SPD’s leverage in coalition talks, its support has slid almost five points in five months to just 16 per cent, according to a Bild tabloid poll on Sunday, just one point ahead of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

SPD members had until Friday night to make up their mind. Counting of votes began at 10pm on Saturday night with 120 SPD volunteers handing over their mobile phones before the work began to ensure secrecy.

The grassroots vote on the coalition deal, after a similar vote in 2013, was criticised in other quarters for effectively giving SPD members - aged as young as 16, many not German citizens - the final say on last September’s election.

Questions were raised, too, about just how closely the party was vetting its new members after a Bild journalist signed up his dog, Lima, who received a welcome letter and ballot paper by post.

After the result was announced on Sunday morning, SPD leaders gathered in their Berlin headquarters to discuss their strategy in the coming days and weeks.

As well as six cabinet posts to hand out, party leaders are debating how to unite their party. SPD youth wing leader Kevin Kühnert pulled in an extra 40,000 members and rattled party leaders with his campaign against another grand coalition. On the road, he attracted huge support by accusing SPD leaders of being more interested in securing a ministerial car than rescuing their 153 year-old party.

The SPD has been in power for all but one term in the last 20 years, and Mr Kühnert says the party has lost touch with its social democratic results and traditional working class vote.

“I stepped up to win, so: disappointed,” said Mr Kühnert on Twitter, vowing to keep up his campaign.

SPD leader-in-waiting Andrea Nahles, in a bid to win over the Kühnert camp and revive her party’s social democratic profile, will stay outside the next government to remain free to criticise the chancellor.

Meanwhile Dr Merkel’s CDU, despite polling its worst result in September since 1949 and exhausting moths of coalition talks, is holding steady in polls on 33 per cent.

Aware of growing unrest Dr Merkel, her once impervious teflon coating now badly scratched, has promised to bring critics and younger rivals into her next cabinet.

At a party conference last week she anointed a possible successor as party general secretary, the popular state premier Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

“This is a good decision for Germany, ” said Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer on Twitter after the SPD result.

With her fourth term now within reach, Dr Merkel, out of action for half a year including the election campaign, knows her next government will have a short honeymoon.

It faces strong opposition in parliament, headed by the far-right AfD, and uncomfortable challenges beyond Germany’s borders: an unresolved Brexit standoff and bad-tempered EU budget talks looming; a growing anti-immigration and Eurosceptic mood likely after Italy’s elections today; and a looming trade war with the US.