Germany’s Social Democrats Look Ready to Take a Bullet
A year ago at this time Angela Merkel stood firm in a wavering West. England had voted for Brexit, the United States and elected Donald Trump, and France’s fate looked very uncertain. Merkel had weathered the refugee crisis and little in the world seemed steadier than her position in Germany, and Germany’s position at Europe. Ten months later came Merkel’s expected victory in the German parliamentary elections, but the win was clearly hollow. Merkel called it a win that “no one could build a government without us,” but no one wanted to build one with them either.
The Social Democrats finally announced in early December that they are willing to enter coalition talks with the CDU. This is quite a shift from election night in late September, when after having scored historically bad results at the polls, the SPD categorically rejected the option of governing on the Angela Merkel’s side for another term. The party was united then, but the failure of the only alternative coalition option — between the Conservatives, Greens, and Liberals — has changed the calculation and left the party is deeply divided. Some want to consider a grand coalition, whereas others prefer a CDU minority government “tolerated” by the SPD. The anti-Grand Coalition SPD faction, which includes the Young Social Democrats, thinks another term as Merkel’s junior partner is “digging a grave for the SPD.”
During the Republican presidential primaries Senator Lindsey Graham said that choosing between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump was like “being shot or poisoned … what does it really matter?” The German Social Democrats now face a similar dilemma. Both of the options before them look a lot like suicide.
A grand coalition might be the death of the party, at least as a big-tent Volkspartei, but a minority government does not necessarily look better for the SPD. It seems like the SPD has decided that the problem is the junior-partner role, but what if the problem is more about policy? If Merkel’s government is pursuing SPD policies, any opposition the SPD can offer will be too tepid to give them the boost they need. Recent history indicates as much. The number most cited are that the SPD has shrunk from getting 34 percent (in 2005) to a dismal 20.5 percent, after eight years governing together with the CDU. But that is ignoring the four years the SPD did spend in the opposition (2009–2013), when Merkel led a conservative-liberal coalition with the FDP. After four years in a coalition led by Merkel, the SPD won only 23 percent of the vote (to the CDU’s almost 34 percent), a gain of less than 3 percent from the previous election, while the CDU/CSU gained almost eight percentage points. What does this tell us? While the SPD is right to think that governing with Merkel has hurt them, it is not clear that opposing her will help them (after all the CDU got a bigger boost after the SPD opposition stint than the SPD did).
Why? Because the most controversial (and unpopular) policies decided in Germany during the Conservative-Liberal coalition were ones the SPD could not oppose. And this story is likely to repeat itself.
The September 2011 Bundestag vote to expand the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) is a good example. As the euro debt crisis worsened in 2010 and 2011 it was clear that more support was needed to save the euro and indebted European countries from collapse. But these rescue efforts were not popular in Germany, and especially not in the governing conservative Union and Liberal parities. Leading up to the expansion vote it was unclear if Merkel would get enough votes from her coalition or would need to rely on votes from the SPD and Green parties to pass the measure. The SPD, for its part, pledged its support for the measure early and criticized Merkel’s government for not doing more. This kind of “yes but more” opposition does not lend itself to profile building, and even less so when the policies are not overwhelmingly popular with one’s base. Considering that Europe’s crises remain unresolved and France’s president Macron has presented an ambitious plan to reform Europe that Berlin will have to respond to — the SPD will find itself not able to offer much more than a tepid “yes but more” opposition. Meanwhile, because Merkel’s conservative union is itself fundamentally divided on these issues, the minority government would offer at best more minimalist, barely sufficient policies that prevent immediate collapse but fall short of enabling real progress. In this scenario, the EU remains to voters a source of problems rather than an answer to them, which will not make the SPD’s pro-European positioning any more attractive. Thus the SPD is slowly depleted in its supportive opposition role, while the EU, too, continues its decline. This is death by poison.
Alternatively, the SPD decided to imbibe the poison of opportunistic opposition. Unlike the scenario above (or the 2009–2013 opposition period) the SPD could decide to offer rabid opposition and position itself starkly against Merkel’s government. They could start opposing anything Merkel wants, even if they are policies they used to support. Or they could dial up the rhetorical opposition, scrambling for issues to politicize — even as they in substance support them. The stark anti-Erdoğan and anti-nuclear turn toward the end of Martin Schulz’s campaign had elements of this. We have seen this kind of opposition in Washington, DC, for example — and it is not ineffective, at least in the short term. But it, too, is political poison. It is the kind of partisan, ineffective governance that feeds voter disdain and populist revolt. Donald Trump won the Republican nomination because Republican voters stopped believing that the elite of their party cared about their issues, and they were not wrong.
The Social Democrats are in a truly unenviable position. But all things considered, it might be best that they opt for another grand coalition. Martin Schulz had already set meaningful EU and German social-welfare reforms as a condition for coalition talks and underscored this at the party conference on December 7 (where the green light was given to start official coalition talks) by calling for a "United States of Europe" by 2025. If they get these agreements from Merkel, it could be the key to pulling the EU out of its unending crises. It could indeed be dangerous for the SPD, but the alternative is by no means safe. Better to take a bullet for Europe than poison for a very uncertain chance at renewal.
Hear more about the political situation in Germany and its struggle to form a new government in GMF’s Out of Order podcast.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.