Germany’s Attempt to Form a New Government, Explained

Updated on
  • Chancellor punts limited-cooperation scenario back to SPD
  • Social Democrats must decide whether to govern: Schmieding

Germany’s Social Democrats are engaging in some creative thinking to make another four years of governing with Chancellor Angela Merkel palatable to party members.

By suggesting a “cooperation coalition,” SPD head Martin Schulz is pivoting further away from his initial refusal to be Merkel’s junior partner. Yet, rather than a conventional government alliance, it would involve a common agenda with her Christian Democratic-led bloc on a few key policy areas only.

Merkel on Dec. 13.

Photographer: Michael Kappeler/AFP via Getty Images

Merkel and Schulz sounded each other out on Wednesday evening without any apparent breakthrough. That puts SPD leaders on the spot to decide on Friday whether to begin exploratory talks on ending almost three months of political stalemate.

How a cooperation coalition would work

Dubbed “KoKo” in Germany, a cooperation coalition has never been tried and would challenge the way parties have built alliances since the federal republic was founded in 1949. Traditionally, party officials hold weeks of negotiations to forge a detailed blueprint for the government’s agenda over the next four years.

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The SPD’s coalition-lite proposal would skip the need for intricate compromise and instead focus on policies the parties can readily agree on, such as public investment in schools and broadband expansion. Contentious issues would be left to shifting parliamentary majorities, allowing the SPD to maintain its profile outside Merkel’s shadow.

What Merkel has said

Merkel wants “a stable government,” something she and her Bavarian sister party told the SPD during the closed-door discussion in Berlin on Wednesday, her CDU party said on Twitter. While that doesn’t reject innovative approaches outright, it certainly appears at odds with the SPD proposal.

Merkel’s bloc wants to talk about a full-fledged coalition government, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel ally, said on ARD television. “I respect the fact that the SPD still has to figure out its position.”

Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the SPD proposal is unlikely to fly. “The Christian Democrats won’t do that,” he told Bloomberg Television. “They will want a partner that shares responsibility across the spectrum.”

What the SPD really wants

The proposal, which emanated from the SPD’s left wing, could help to unite a party still reeling after its worst electoral result since World War II. So it may act as a bridge between those who insist the SPD is only hastening its own demise by renewing the “grand coalition” Merkel has led for eight of her 12 years in power, and those who rather like the idea of a return to government.

Schulz on Dec. 13.

Photographer: Maurrizio Gambarini/AFP/Getty Images

It also reflects an option which found some favor among delegates to a party conference this month: a minority Merkel government reliant upon SPD support for favored legislation. While such an arrangement would deny the SPD seats at the cabinet table, it would allow the party, as the largest opposition member, to steer policy making in the hope of winning voter support as it rebuilt.

Ultimately, however, it gets the party talking about governing after Schulz’s initial rejection of any kind of alliance with Merkel.

“The SPD leadership is clearly trying to pave the way for a grand coalition,” said Juergen Falter, a political scientist from the University of Mainz. It’s “trying to calm and appease the party base and offer a sweetener to the party’s left. The proposal is likely to be an interim step in the negotiations on the way to a grand coalition.”

Or as Janning puts it: “This cooperation scheme is sort of a camouflage to coalition-building.”

Where this leaves us

Merkel and the SPD are eager to break the deadlock resulting from Germany’s election on Sept. 24, which weakened both big parties. But amid the political jostling, the KoKo may end up being more of a trial balloon aimed at smoothing over internal party discord.

In any case, “in practice it wouldn’t last for very long as such a model would poison the coalition climate,” said Falter. “It would create a lot of instability and would most likely lead to early elections.”

That’s a scenario neither side is keen to embrace, since polls suggest a repeat vote wouldn’t resolve the deadlock and could potentially make matters worse for both parties.

Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg bank, places the chance of a repeat grand coalition at more than 50 percent, though he flagged a risk that “the deeply insecure SPD acting without clear leadership will indeed pull out in the end.”

Ultimately, he said, “the SPD will have to decide whether they want to govern or not.”

— With assistance by Arne Delfs

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