Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) decisively backed another coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives on Sunday (4 March), clearing the way for a new government in Europe’s largest economy after months of political uncertainty.
Two thirds of the membership voted “yes” to the deal in a ballot – a wider margin than many had expected.
That means Merkel could be sworn in for a fourth term as early as the middle of the month, in a repeat of the grand coalition that has governed since 2013.
But the chancellor, in power for 12 years, has had to pay a high price to coax the reluctant Social Democratic Party (SPD) back into another loveless “grand coalition”.
Stung by their worst post-war results, the SPD had initially ruled out another four years in Merkel’s shadow.
But after Merkel’s attempt to cobble together a government with two smaller parties failed, the SPD relented.
With the party riven over the way forward, the leadership promised its more than 460,000 members the final say on any coalition deal.
“We now have clarity. The SPD will be in the next government,” said SPD’s caretaker chairman Olaf Scholz, adding his party plans to send three male and three female ministers to the cabinet.
“I think it’s good for our country that this period of uncertainty is over,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, adding that he would on Monday propose Merkel as chancellor to the lower house of parliament. Merkel is due to be re-elected by parliament as chancellor on March 14, said Volker Kauder, parliamentary chief of her CDU party.
Sigh of relief in Europe
European partners waiting impatiently for Germany to end its longest stretch of coalition haggling since the end of the war heaved a sigh of relief, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling the SPD decision “good news for Europe.”
Some analysts said the common currency would be buoyed by Merkel now being able to partner with France on President Macron’s ambitious euro zone reform plans.
But the challenges are piling up for 63-year-old Merkel, who has been acting chancellor for more than five months since an inconclusive election, with the European Union looking for leadership on economic and security issues.
A statement from Macron’s office added: “France and Germany will work together on new initiatives in the coming weeks to bring the European project forward.”
In a nod to the “GroKo”, as the grand right-left coalition is known in Germany, European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans wrote on Twitter: “GroGO! For solidarity in Germany and EU!”
Clarity at last
In power since 2005, Merkel steered the European bloc through the financial crisis and debt crisis, but her authority was dented by her 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to migrants, resulting in an influx of more than a million people.
That cost her party dearly in last year’s election, which saw the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party enter parliament for the first time.
Acting SPD leader Olaf Scholz announced the result to activists lining the balconies around the atrium of the party’s Berlin headquarters early on Sunday.
“We now have clarity: the SPD will join the next German government,” Scholz said. The party had initially planned to go into opposition after its worst election result since Germany became a federal republic in 1949.
Merkel took to her party’s Twitter feed to congratulate the SPD. “I look forward to working with the SPD again for the good of our country,” she said.
— CDU Deutschlands (@CDU) March 4, 2018
German business greeted with relief the news that Germany would get a government after its longest-ever post-election interregnum.
“While the United States are starting a trade war and China is challenge our industrial leadership, we have been unnecessarily self-absorbed,” engineering trade union VDMA’s managing director Thilo Brodtmann said.
The SPD ballot pitted the leadership of the centre-left party against the radical youth wing, which wanted the SPD to rebuild in opposition after its disastrous election showing.
“I’m happy it worked out this way,” Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s likely next leader, told Reuters.
Scholz declined to comment on reports that he would be finance minister, saying only that the SPD would appoint three men and three women to the federal cabinet. As part of the price for its support, the SPD will take the helm at key ministries, including the finance ministry.
Further names of potential ministerial candidates may be floated at the parties’ regular caucus meetings, due on Monday.
Rocky road ahead for Merkel
The SPD was forced to revisit its original plan to go into opposition after the failure of Merkel’s initial attempt to form a coalition with two smaller parties.
This means Merkel faces a far rockier road ahead.
A crushing majority enjoyed by her conservatives and the SPD in the last coalition has been trimmed to a slim 56% of seats (399 out of total 709) in parliament this time round.
Both sides had been weakened as voters angry about the arrival of more than a million asylum seekers in Germany since 2015 turned to the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The AfD, which would be the biggest opposition party in Germany as the SPD joins the government, vowed to go after Merkel’s CDU over its “continuation of the immigration policy without imposing a limit.”
The party’s parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel predicted that “the bill will come at the latest in 2021.”
Dissenting voices in the SPD also promise to keep the long-time partners on their toes.
The SPD’s youth chief Kevin Kuehnert, who ran an impassioned campaign against the planned coalition expressed disappointment at Sunday’s vote result.
“When criticism is necessary, then it will come from us,” he vowed, adding that young Social Democrats won’t rest until there is a “fundamental renewal” in the party.
Sind angetreten, um zu gewinnen. Daher erstmal: Enttäuschung. Kritik an #Groko bleibt. Die SPD muss mehr sein, wie in den letzten Wochen und weniger, wie in den letzten Jahren. Dafür werden wir #Jusos Sorge tragen – kein #SPDerneuern ohne uns. Morgen geht's los. #Mitgliedervotum
— Kevin Kühnert (@KuehniKev) March 4, 2018
The tension within the party over its partnership with Merkel was illustrated by the silence that met news that the “Yes”-camp prevailed, prompting Spiegel Online to headline its story “Hardly any rejoicing”.
Within the ranks too, Merkel, who once seemed invincible, is looking increasingly vulnerable as calls grow louder for change.
Opponents of her liberal refugee policy have grown more outspoken, while the conservative wing of her party is seething at having lost control of the powerful finance ministry to the Social Democrats as part of the coalition deal.
For the chancellor,who is under pressure within her party to rejuvenate the ranks, the clock is essentially ticking to groom her successor.
In a bid to tamp down criticism, Merkel has brought one of her most outspoken CDU critics, Jens Spahn, into her next cabinet as health minister.
Spahn, 37, a former deputy to hardliner Wolfgang Schäuble at the finance ministry, has repeatedly slammed Merkel’s centrist policies, particularly on immigration.
He has also advocated a sharp conservative shift in a bid to woo back voters from the AfD, which garnered nearly 13% in the September election.
But crucially, at a congress this week, her party also formally appointed its new general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, tapped by Merkel to kickstart the renewal process.
Sueddeutsche daily noted that “she is the one who has made it clear that the CDU is now no longer without a successor for Merkel”.