German SPD Chief Set to Sell Party on Merkel Coalition

German Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel warned his party not to throw away the chance of implementing its policies, saying that a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel is better than a return to opposition.

Gabriel, a veteran of the SPD’s so-called grand coalition with Merkel that ended in 2009, used a speech to 600 party delegates in Leipzig today to temper expectations of talks with her bloc on another alliance. While the party will insist on SPD values as the price of forming a coalition, including a national minimum wage and tighter labor-market rules, policies such as tax increases won’t happen under Merkel, he said.

“Whoever expects us to implement 100 percent of our election program is expecting too much,” Gabriel said. “The SPD can achieve a lot for the people of Germany in these coalition talks. But it mustn’t play for all or nothing.”

Gabriel, a possible vice chancellor in Merkel’s third-term government, aims to persuade his party to take the risk of joining their traditional rivals in coalition after its defeat in Sept. 22 elections. He has committed to put any coalition deal to a ballot of the SPD membership next month, handing the rank and file the chance to derail Merkel’s plan to have a government by Christmas.

Warning Shot

Maneuvering began before the three-day meeting, with coalition talks broken off in two policy areas and SPD officials speaking publicly in favor of considering a future alliance with the anti-capitalist Left Party, sending a warning shot to Merkel that she can’t take the SPD for granted. A motion will be voted on in Leipzig that proposes overturning the party’s refusal to ally with the Left, which includes former East German communists.

“Gabriel has very good instincts about what moves the party, and that’s clearly seen in how he’s cleverly opening up toward the Left,” Andrea Roemmele, a professor of political science and communication at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said in a telephone interview. That leaves options for the next election in 2017 and “adds leverage in addressing his great challenge, which is to bring around a skeptical grass roots to support a grand coalition now,” she said.

SPD delegates are in Leipzig, where the Social Democratic movement was inaugurated 150 years ago this year, to pick over the September election in which the party took 25.7 percent to 41.5 percent for Merkel’s bloc, the SPD’s second-worst result since World War II. The worst was in 2009, after four years of coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc.

‘Belly Ache’

The SPD mayor of Leipzig, Burkhard Jung, told the conference that he understood the “belly ache” caused by the prospect of allying with Merkel again. Entering into a coalition is necessary to defend against four more years of unrestrained Merkel, he said.

Some advocate “go into opposition and remain true to our values,” said Hannelore Kraft, the SPD prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and one of her party’s lead negotiators in the coalition talks. “Sometimes it’s easier not to govern. But it’s better for the people if we do,” she said.

Kraft’s state, which is home to more of the SPD’s 470,000 members than any other, is key to the outcome of the mail-in vote scheduled to take about two weeks to mid-December. Gabriel asked delegates to “measure in 14 days what progress we can make in government for the coming years.”

Gabriel, 54, peppered his speech with references to former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt and said the party mustn’t divert from the course outlined during the campaign. That means a push for “fairer” pensions, dual citizenship rules, efforts to fight old-age poverty, better care and equality for men and women, he said.

Diplomatic Observers

Numerous stalls outside the main plenum suggested a party on the verge of government, with far more company exhibits than the SPD’s previous convention in Augsburg in April. Inside the hall, international delegates and diplomatic observers made up some of the 2,500 non-voting participants to what could be the SPD’s last gathering in opposition.

Delegates such as Juergen Conrad, an attorney from Landstuhl in Rhineland-Palatinate who is a member of the regional SPD board, have yet to be convinced of the case for joining Merkel: He said he’ll probably vote against the coalition contract.

“There’s a very deep-seated angst in the party’s root and branch that Merkel will yet again reap the rewards for the achievements of this potential coalition and we’ll get the blame for its failures,” Conrad said in an interview. “Gabriel recognizes this. He also knows there’s distrust of the SPD leadership. A speech isn’t enough to brush away these fears.”

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