Merkel Refuseniks Determined to Head Off Grand Coalition

Franz-Josef Drabig is doing all he can to wreck Germany’s next government before it’s formed.

Drabig, a Social Democratic Party district official in the coal and steel town of Dortmund, is part of a groundswell in the SPD against a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel. He says he’ll reject a joint platform completed yesterday and a majority of Dortmund SPD members will join him in voting “No” in a binding party referendum.

“We’ve decided against a grand coalition,” Drabig, 58, said in an interview in Dortmund, the largest city in the industrial Ruhr region, where he and two deputies are visiting 50 of the 76 local SPD chapters to lobby against signing on as Merkel’s junior partner. “We don’t want to just be Merkel’s means of achieving a majority.”

Far from the political salons of Berlin, opposition in SPD heartlands like Dortmund in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia highlights party leaders’ unfinished business as they seek to return to government. Rejection by the rank-and-file would also mark a defeat for the state’s SPD premier, Hannelore Kraft, and derail her aspirations to take on Merkel as a national leader.

The mail-in ballot of the SPD’s 470,000 members is uncharted territory: It’s the first time in post-World War II history a coalition contract will be put to a vote. A rejection could force new elections, just months after Merkel won on Sept. 22 with the biggest margin since reunification in 1990. The result is due in mid-December.

‘Tail Risk’

While SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel said yesterday that he expects a “broad majority” to back the coalition pact and Commerzbank AG strategists Christoph Rieger and Benjamin Schroeder call rejection an improbable “tail risk,” others are not so sure. SPD members like Drabig complain that even with Merkel accepting their party’s policies of a national minimum wage and increased pension spending, taxes on the wealthy didn’t rise.

“I’m not convinced SPD members will accept” the deal, Wichard Woyke, a professor of political science at the University of Muenster in North Rhine-Westphalia, said by phone. Active members are the most likely to vote “and a whole lot of the active members are against a grand coalition,” he said. There’s been no polling of SPD members on their coalition views.

National Misgivings

Misgivings about allying with Merkel aren’t limited to North Rhine-Westphalia. At a national convention this month, delegates vented their disapproval by re-electing six of seven party leaders, including Gabriel, with lower scores than in 2011.

The entire SPD leadership would probably have to quit in the event of a rejection of the coalition accord negotiated with Merkel’s bloc over five weeks, according to Woyke. Kraft, forced to “do the splits between what Berlin and the NRW SPD wants,” might also have to quit, he said.

“It would be a disaster” for national SPD leaders, who staked their credibility on the coalition, Peer Steinbrueck, a former state premier who lost to Merkel this year, said Nov. 22. “We have no Plan B,” Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s general secretary, told broadcaster N-TV today. “There’s no alternative now other than to fight, to persuade and to campaign for it. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Industrial Heritage

The history of Dortmund and the Ruhr, forged through heavy industry, is intertwined with that of the Social Democratic movement, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Built on mining, iron and steel production, Dortmund was 95 percent destroyed during World War II by Allied bombing raids targeting Adolf Hitler’s manufacturing hub.

After helping fire Germany’s postwar economic “miracle,” the city’s steel industry, once dominated by the Hoesch AG works that employed as many as 25,000 people, has shrunk to about 1,000 workers. The state’s jobless rate was 8.1 percent last month, compared to 6.5 percent nationally.

Today, the Phoenix West blast furnaces of the city’s Westfalenhuette complex are rusting ruins on empty fields next to a park carved out of the former industrial zone. The road that workers once took to the steelworks is a dead end. Yet the Social Democratic vein runs deep.

The SPD’s Johannes Rau ruled the state for 20 years from 1978 to 1998, before becoming German president in 1999. Franz Muentefering, a former SPD chairman who was vice chancellor in Merkel’s first-term government, cut his political teeth in the state, as did Steinbrueck, Merkel’s former finance minister.

Political Heft

North Rhine-Westphalia’s SPD sent 52 lawmakers to the lower house of Parliament on Sept. 22, up from 39 in the last election and more than 25 percent of the party’s 193 seats. It counts about 122,000 SPD members, more than any other state, giving it and Kraft political heft in Berlin. That also means the state’s Social Democrats can make or break the coalition accord.

Winning a concession from Merkel to introduce a national minimum wage “is simply not enough,” Jutta Reiter, chairwoman of the DGB union federation in Dortmund, said in an interview. The unions campaigned for higher taxes on the wealthy, and they couldn’t overcome Merkel’s opposition.

“I doubt that the members will support the coalition agreement,” she said yesterday.

The state premier, Kraft, predicts success while acknowledging the opposition. “There are some who will vote otherwise for more emotional reasons,” she told WDR 5 radio yesterday. “There’s nothing we can do about that.”

Greens Talks

A “No” vote would force Merkel to court the environmental Greens party for an unprecedented national alliance or to call fresh elections. It would return the SPD to opposition to build toward the next election in 2017.

Polls suggest the SPD has the most to fear from an electoral rerun. And Kraft, who is mentioned in German media as a possible SPD chancellor candidate in 2017, has the trickiest balancing act to perform of anyone in her party, said Oskar Niedermayer, a politics professor at the Free University in Berlin.

Kraft has to sell the coalition to SPD skeptics in her state having initially expressed doubts about it, Niedermayer said by phone. She “is stuck in a dilemma,” he said.

Drabig, the district SPD official in Dortmund, is unfazed by the risk posed to Kraft and other party leaders. He’s too busy lobbying fellow members to reject the grand coalition.

He and Kraft “get along well but she doesn’t expect that we follow her on every point,” he said. “The SPD leadership knows the risks and will have to live with it.”

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