Germany’s SPD gathers in Bonn for crunch coalition meeting

Country’s political future – and with it Angela Merkel’s future – hinges on Sunday’s meeting

Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party: he and his grand coalition are facing a revolt from Kevin Kühnert (28), dubbed “babyface” by a German tabloid this week. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party: he and his grand coalition are facing a revolt from Kevin Kühnert (28), dubbed “babyface” by a German tabloid this week. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

 

Bonn has not seen much political action since the federal government’s departure for Berlin in 1999.

But on Sunday, Germany’s post-electoral flying circus pays a visit to the old West German capital.

Some 600 delegates from the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) gather to debate a question that has divided Germany’s oldest party – and left the country in limbo since September’s federal election.

Should the SPD open the door to another four-year co-habitation – its third since 2005 – with Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic (CDU/CSU) alliance? Or should the party run for the hills?

“It’s not exaggerating to say that the world is looking to Bonn,” said Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s acting foreign minister and ex-party leader.

It was Gabriel who set in train events that have led to the Bonn meeting, on which hinges Germany’s political future – and, with it, that of Merkel.

A year ago, Gabriel stood aside as SPD leader in favour of Martin Schulz (62). Fresh from heading the European Parliament, Schulz promised to bring back fairness to German life, and lure back working class voters who had drifted off to the hard left and the hard right.

Worst result in years

But an initial surge in support fizzled and the Schulz SPD came to earth on September 24th with a bone-rattling 20.5 per cent, its worst result in almost 70 years.

After promising a period of reflection in opposition, Schulz had a change of heart and last week, emerged from exploratory talks with Merkel with a 28-page framework agreement.

This agreement, Schulz will tell delegates on Sunday, guarantees substantial European reform and policies for Germany’s low-earners, families and pensioners which will, cumulatively, have a positive effect on their lives.

But Schulz and his grand coalition are facing a revolt from Berliner Kevin Kühnert (28). The SPD’s youth wing leader looks so harmless he was dubbed “babyface” by a German tabloid this week – but has rattled party leaders.

“You can’t find anyone in the party who’s excited about another grand coalition,” said Kühnert, leader of an angry cabal of SPD left-wingers and many younger members.

A year after they signed up with the SPD in their thousands, they feel betrayed that Schulz, rather than ending Merkel’s political career, wants to extend it.

Albert Lopez-Torres (21) trainee and SPD Bonn branch member, accuses party leaders of jettisoning a key promise for a wealth tax, a commitment to bring German top earners back into the public health system, and of conceding tighter refugee rules.

“I see nothing in this agreement that comprises important social democratic politics,” he says. “For me this is borderline suicide, particularly for the younger generation.”

Resigned

Thomas Hermann (60), entrepreneur and SPD member in Bonn for 40 years, says he is less enthusiastic than resigned about his party returning to power.

“We have a responsibility for the party but also for the country,” he said. “It has to be our task to ensure fundamental social democratic principles are implemented in power.”

Both concede the Bonn showdown is, in reality, the latest round in a long-running proxy war: what, precisely, are modern social democratic principles in the era of globalisation – and how do you translate them into government policy?

In power for all but four of the last 20 years, many SPD left-wingers and younger members want time and space in opposition to find answers to these existential questions.

But the SPD’s pragmatic centrist and conservative wings insist that political renewal is about pushing through policy and learning by doing. Or, as ex-SPD leader Franz Müntefering once put it: “Opposition is shit.”

In the preliminary grand coalition deal, Schulz sees the first steps to a new kind of politics: looser German purse-strings for overdue investment in schools, roads, digital infrastructure, as well as guaranteed pensions and improved pay for a growing army of old-age carers.

Unappetising prospect

Refusing power on Sunday, he says, will “see things come to fresh elections, and pretty quickly” – an unappetising prospect given the party has slumped to 18.5 per cent in polls.

“If the parties don’t succeed in building a government with the Bundestag majority,” he told Der Spiegel magazine, “they will be punished by voters.”

Despite the hype, Sunday’s vote is not the final act in Germany’s post-electoral limbo.

Even if, as seems likely, SPD party delegates vote to open formal talks with Merkel’s CDU/CSU, the final word, when coalition talks conclude, falls to more than 443,000 SPD rank-and-file members in a postal vote.

Not everyone in Germany is impressed by this. Passing the SPD’s Berlin headquarters on Friday, a furious Nicola Vogel asked: “Why do their members count more than German voters? And why are they allowed to hold the country – and Europe – to ransom?”

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