Six Reasons Why Social Democrats Should Join a Merkel Government
The breakdown of the preliminary talks to form a Jamaica coalition of Christian Democrats, Greens, and free market liberals came as a shock to Germans. It could also not come at a worse moment for the Social Democrats (SPD). After their disappointing showing at the September 24 elections, Martin Schulz, the party’s leader, defiantly rejected a continuation of the grand coalition. The SPD was convinced that another coalition with Merkel’s CDU would shrink the SPD further.
But now, eight weeks after the elections, the SPD might have to reconsider its firm Nein. The Social Democrats wanted to use their time in the opposition to restructure and renew the party. But suddenly, the SPD finds itself between a rock and a hard place. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier demanded on Monday that “all parties who are competing for political responsibility must not shirk responsibility when power falls into their hands.” His message was clearly aimed at the Social Democrats.
Officially, the SPD still stands by its refusal to join another grand coalition, but the tone of their statements is softening. Indeed, a few members of their parliamentary caucus have already suggested that the party should be open to tolerating a Merkel-led minority government. Yet, the party’s rank and file as well as several of its leaders still believe that new elections would be their best options. They argue that a continuation of the grand coalition would leave the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) as leader of the opposition, providing it with special rights and privileges, as well as a lot of media attention. They also refer to the latest polls, which show that the majority of the German electorate rejects another grand coalition. And It would leave no time for the restructuring and renewal of the party.
While these are reasonable arguments, at least six arguments to the contrary are now debated:
1. The SPD is not ready for new elections.
The new election date currently floated in Berlin is April 22. That leaves around four months for the campaign. During this time, the SPD would need to identify and decide on a candidate, overhaul its program, and pull off a decent electoral campaign.
2. The polls do not look good.
The latest poll puts the SPD at 19.5 percent. That is even a point less than the September result, which was the worst showing it the parties history.
3. Merkel’s conservatives are better positioned for new elections.
The conservatives look united now. After months of debate between Merkel’s wing of the party and the Bavarian traditionalists, especially on the question of how many refugees Germany should accept, they have finally brokered a compromise during the “Jamaica” negotiations that the party is willing to live with. Angela Merkel is still very popular among the German electorate. Around 58 percent want her as chancellor according to the latest poll. On the SPD side, there is no viable candidate in sight. Martin Schulz was crushed in the last elections, and he is even losing support within his own party. Other candidates would need more time to prepare a run.
4. The SPD could fulfill many of its electoral promises.
In spite of its meager electoral result, the SPD is in a good negotiating position. The Christian Democrats (CDU) do not want new elections either and might be willing to buy the SPD off. The last grand coalition is evidence enough that the SPD could deliver on its core promises centered around social justice.
5. This is Merkel’s last term.
It is very likely that this is Angela Merkel’s last term as chancellor. She might even step down before the end of her four-year term. It is also likely that the CDU will move to the right after Merkel, the ultimate centrist, is gone. This will open up space in the political center for the Social Democrats.
6. And finally, Europe.
The European Union needs a strong German government. There are too many urgent issues and challenges ahead: eurozone reform, completion of banking union, reform of European migration and refugee policy, only to name a few. Considering the European timetable, the window of opportunity is closing rapidly. French President Emmanuel Macron promised to deliver domestic reforms in return for eurozone reform. If Germany does not have a strong government soon, there is little chance that Macron will make progress on his European reform agenda. A grand coalition would be best suited to find a compromise with the French government. Historically and when it really counted, for Social Democrats, it was country before party. This time would also mean Europe before party. While many Social Democrats resent coming to the rescue of Angela Merkel, they will be convinced more easily to come to the rescue of Emmanuel Macron.
In the words of the President of the Bundestag Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany is not facing “constitutional crisis, but a litmus test.” Yet, if Germany fails to build a stable government and new elections do not produce a different result, we may well see a constitutional crisis — which would quickly develop into a European crisis. After the FDP refused to take up responsibility for the country and Europe, it is up to the SPD to prevent this from happening.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.