German Coalition Fatigue Limits Options for Merkel and Schulz

  • Majority of Schulz’s SPD membership opposes grand coalition
  • Any coalition agreement would have to be passed by SPD members

How Germany Votes: Everything You Need to Know

In 2013, when Angela Merkel led her party to its strongest election showing since German reunification, the defeated Social Democrats reluctantly agreed to a “grand coalition” of the two main parties.

Four years on and with polls all pointing to another win for Merkel, the SPD has had enough of playing second fiddle. According to lawmakers and party officials, that means there’s a real risk a rerun won’t happen -- even if polls suggest it is the most likely outcome after the Sept. 24 election.

While senior party members insist in public that the SPD under Martin Schulz can score a surprise victory, the reality is clear to many that the best hope of a return to government is as junior partner to Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc. Yet that’s unpalatable to the party’s wider membership, potentially ruling out the most stable coalition option open to Merkel.

“A majority in the regional branches want the SPD to either put up the chancellor or go into opposition,” Ingrid Arndt-Brauer, an SPD lawmaker who chairs the lower-house finance committee, said by phone. “The mood among the membership at the moment is against a grand coalition. That’s not my stance, but it’s the position of the majority of members in local associations.”

SPD Vote

The Social Democrats have shored up Merkel’s bloc as junior partner for eight of her 12 years as chancellor. While each time the SPD negotiated a coalition contract that carried the party’s imprint, they failed to gain widespread voter credit for implementing their own policies such as a minimum wage and rent controls, contributing to successive electoral defeats and making SPD members increasingly wary of another tie-up this time.

Merkel Faces Volatile Coalition Options If Election Goes Her Way

That matters because Social Democratic Party members were consulted on the coalition deal reached in negotiations with Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc after the 2013 election. After intense lobbying by the party’s leadership, 76 percent of SPD members passed what was deemed to be a contract agreement that contained all the party’s main election pledges. There’s no guarantee it would pass this time around, even if party leaders were to throw their weight behind a coalition deal.

“The difficulties in forming a grand coalition don’t lie so much with the political leadership -- they’d go for it in the end -- but rather the problem lies with the membership,” said Oskar Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University who has researched German parties since the 1970s. The SPD has been left “traumatized” twice now by its alliance with Merkel, he said, meaning that a rerun “is one of the great unknowns.”

Austria Redux

Schulz ruled out another grand coalition during the campaign. In practice, the SPD membership’s willingness to hook up with Merkel for a third time since she defeated Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in 2005 would hinge on how many concessions it could wring from her. But that also depends on the two main parties’ election showing: Bloomberg’s poll tracker currently puts the CDU/CSU on 38 percent and the SPD on 22.5 percent, both down about 3 percentage points on 2013.

A result on Election Day of at least 30 percent that allowed the SPD to impose more of its agenda could help sway the membership in favor of a grand coalition, according to Arndt-Brauer. It’s still no panacea, she said, citing the example of Austria, where repeat governments incorporating the two main parties led to a rise in support for peripheral, extremist forces.

Johannes Kahrs, the party’s budget spokesman in the last parliament, or Bundestag, said that he and many other SPD members would prefer a so-called traffic light coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats. But polls currently show the three parties short of the necessary support to form a majority.

“The voter will decide what happens after the election,” Kahrs said by phone. “The grand coalition cannot be a lasting solution.”

— With assistance by Arne Delfs

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