Sullen silence as Germany’s SPD votes itself back into power

One third of SPD rank-and-file argue the party has lost touch with core voters

Andrea Nahles, designated SPD leader, announcing that the party has approved a plan to join Angela Merkel’s coalition. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrea Nahles, designated SPD leader, announcing that the party has approved a plan to join Angela Merkel’s coalition. Photograph: Getty Images

 

The mood in the Willy Brandt Haus on Sunday morning was less festive than funereal. After their third all-nighter in seven weeks, Germany’s Social Democrat (SPD) leaders looked as much like strung-out Berghain party-goers as crisis-wracked Berlin politicians.

After polls closed last September, Germany’s oldest political party took it on the chin and accepted its worst post-war election result and a term in opposition with stoic cheers.

More than five months later, on another Sunday in SPD headquarters, the party faithful greeted news that they had just voted themselves back into power with sullen silence.

The lack of reaction from SPD supporters on the balconies prompted a confused journalist in the atrium below to ask if they had been instructed not to react.

They hadn’t. But after years of electoral disasters, months of mixed signals and weeks of tetchy debate, they are wrung out before the SPD even enters power.

SPD optimists insist their proud party has survived Bismarck, the Nazis, communism and two World Wars – and will survive another grand coalition with Angela Merkel and her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The SPD leadership insist that third time is a charm, presenting a coalition agreement promising a staggering €45 billion for projects close to social democratic hearts: schools, welfare, workers.

But one third of SPD rank-and-file remain doubtful, arguing their party has lost touch with its core voter base, and that opposition is the best place for a radical leftward lurch.

Dirge

Only time will tell which camp was right, but at this stage the SPD has little left to lose.Transpose SPD political support into musical notes – as the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper did on its website last week – and the tune slides so relentlessly downward that it classifies as a dirge.

Two decades on from Gerhard Schröder’s election triumph, ousting Helmut Kohl from power with almost 41 per cent support, the SPD is now a ghostly poll presence with just 16 per cent support. That puts it effectively neck-and-neck with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland: 150 years its junior and now officially leader of the opposition.

While the SPD digests the consequences of its decision, Germany and Europe have been spared fresh elections and another extended round of slow-motion Berlin horse trading.

But long-time observers of German politics know that expectation management is always wiser than high hopes.

And even after five months of waiting, the new government is unlikely to leap into life like a young greyhound. Instead it will canter leisurely, like an ageing cart horse, towards looming challenges: high-stakes EU budget talks and an ongoing migration standoff, Brexit uncertainty and an ambitious French reform agenda for the EU.

Sorbonne speech

French president Emmanuel Macron has been waiting since September for an official response to his Sorbonne speech on overhauling the euro area and its financing. But the signals from Berlin: expect less, not more, from Merkel IV.

As soon as her government takes office the window of opportunity for EU reform this year begins to close again. Two major state elections in the autumn, in Bavaria and Hesse, mean that Dr Merkel – under close scrutiny from her party – will be wary of committing to any euro reforms before then that look like a blank cheque from Berlin.

And so Europe is back to business as usual: beholden to the domestic politics – and relentless electoral schedule – of its largest member.

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