(Economist) Pressure grows on the Social Democrats to open talks with Angela Merkel.
WHEN the pro-business Free Democrats walked out of coalition talks with Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance and the Green Party on Sunday night, myriad certainties about Germany’s politics and its next government seemed to dissolve.
One thing remained concrete, however: bruised by a record-low election result on September 24th, the Social Democrats (SPD) would be unavailable for another four years of “grand coalition” with the chancellor. Martin Schulz, its leader and chancellor candidate, had ruled it out shortly after polls closed and reiterated his opposition on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, in the aftermath of the talks’ collapse, he called for fresh elections.
Yet now that truth too is dissolving, as insiders report: “The ground seems to be shifting”; “I wouldn’t rule it out any more”; “Clearly the pressure is mounting”. Mr Schulz was already weak before Sunday’s drama, tarnished by his party’s lacklustre campaign and terrible result. His immediate rejection of talks with Mrs Merkel’s party and insistence that voters should “judge the situation afresh” play well with members—who are overwhelmingly opposed to a new coalition and will, through their delegates, decide whether Mr Schulz remains leader at the party’s conference in two weeks. But they irritated MPs looking nervously at polls and at the party’s depleted financial and logistical resources. A poll taken yesterday put the SPD on 19.5%, a point below its result in September.
Speaking on Monday Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s new leader in the Bundestag and a powerful figure among the cadres and base (pictured above with Mr Schulz), declined to echo Mr Schulz’s commitment, appearing instead to hedge her bets. Then came a meeting of the party’s MPs at which, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper, more than 30 MPs spoke out against new elections. When Mr Schulz reiterated the party’s anti-coalition stance, almost no-one applauded.
Prominent SPD centrists are advancing the case for talks with Mrs Merkel. Johannes Kahrs, leader of Seeheimer Kreis, a moderate faction, has argued: “We should not stick to one position without weighing up both sides of the argument”. Most notably Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister and Mr Schulz’s predecessor as SPD leader, is pushing in this direction.
These dissenters have two tools: the carrot and stick. The carrot is to appeal to Mr Schulz’s federalist ideals (he is a former European Parliament president) with the prospect of bending the next German government towards Emmanuel Macron and his European reformism. Pressure is expected from fellow European social-democratic parties and from the Elysée, with which Mr Gabriel has particularly close links, as well as from business.
The stick is to threaten Mr Schulz’s position. He has been weakened first by the election and second his misreading of the mood at the top of the party in the past couple of days. A challenge by a popular figure like Manuela Schwesig, prime minister of the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, or Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg, could deny him the party leadership. His chances of a second run at the chancellorship in the event of new elections look questionable.
One indication of his thinking will come tomorrow, in his comments after meeting Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s president and formerly the SPD foreign minister. Mr Steinmeier is strongly suspected to favour a grand coalition over a minority government or new elections, on Monday stressing that “all participants need to reconsider their attitude”. Will Mr Schulz hold his ground? Or will he declare himself open to talks with Mrs Merkel in the national interest? Flatly rejecting Mr Steinmeier’s urging would expose him and his associates to the charge of putting party before country.
Even if Mr Schulz budges, the party’s membership would have to endorse a new grand coalition in a vote. The last one in 2013 was supported by 76%. Four years, many achievements and very little credit later, a similar proportion is opposed to another turn with Mrs Merkel, whose flexibility and centrism deny her junior coalition partners the distinctiveness they need to retain their voters.
One way of moving that consensus would be to demand that Mrs Merkel goes as the price of a new deal. An option raised in internal SPD discussions would see a grand coalition constituted under entirely new leadership; with Mrs Merkel, Horst Seehofer of the CSU and Mr Schulz all stepping down. Any such demand would at least put the ball back in the CDU’s court, goes the argument. But it would almost certainly meet with outright and immediate rejection. The CDU will not simply give up a leader who remains a huge electoral asset (58% of Germans want her to remain chancellor), especially not against a backdrop of possible new elections.
A more promising method would be to guide the membership towards the idea incrementally. That could start with talks on SPD “toleration” of a minority government of the CDU/CSU, possibly including the Greens, offering legislative support on big subjects like the budget, Europe and Bundeswehr deployments, in exchange for limited consultation and amendment rights. Discussions on this theme might then develop into full-blown coalition talks, possibly with a vote of the SPD membership beforehand blessing this shift.
To be sure, this is not a prediction of a new grand coalition. Fresh elections or a minority government, possibly tolerated by the SPD, still look more likely. But a new CDU/CSU-SPD administration in Berlin is no longer unthinkable in the way it was 48 hours ago.