Germany’s SPD Turns to Former Rabble-Rouser to Sell Merkel Deal

Updated on
  • Party seeks stability as membership votes on coalition deal
  • Nominee Andrea Nahles says she’ll give her all to make it work

CDU Members 'Up in Arms' Over Merkel's SPD Deal, Bastian Says

Germany’s Social Democrats nominated a new leader who said she’ll lobby for a government alliance with Chancellor Angela Merkel, potentially moving the country closer to ending months of political deadlock.

Party leaders unanimously backed parliamentary caucus leader Andrea Nahles, 47, as chairwoman on Tuesday, buying time as they seek to quell a grass-roots revolt ahead of a membership vote on a coalition pact agreed with Merkel last week.

“I will lobby in favor of entering into a grand coalition,” Nahles told reporters in Berlin, referring to the SPD’s alliance with Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc that governed Germany for the last four years. “I will make my case for it, and I’m going to put everything I have into getting a successful outcome.”

Nahles, a combative, plain-talking former labor minister under Merkel, carries weight in the party base and can hope to shore up support among blue-collar members for another stint in government.

Party Language

“She speaks the language of the party base and is therefore the right person to pitch the grand coalition,” said Carsten Nickel, a Brussels-based analyst at Teneo Intelligence. “However, the vote should be tight as the chaos of the last few days has increased the risk of failure.”

The SPD’s maneuvering is aimed at taming a crisis that threatens to torpedo a return to government and extend Germany’s longest party impasse since World War II. Nahles, who was instrumental in winning support for coalition negotiations at a party convention last month, will be critical for SPD’s efforts to win a ballot of more than 460,000 members, which wraps up in early March.

Her appointment faced resistance from some left-leaning SPD members who oppose the deal with Merkel, resented the party leadership’s effort to sway the member ballot’s outcome and would rather see the Social Democrats rebuild in opposition.

Electoral losses by the two biggest parties have left Germany facing a choice between the stability embodied by Merkel and a bout of heightened political risk that could sweep away the current generation of leaders. Should the SPD vote fail, Germany could be headed for new elections.

Stand-In Leader

To avoid a conflict with SPD statutes and sidestep the appearance of strong-arming Nahles into the role, party leaders named Olaf Scholz as acting chairman. The mayor of Hamburg, who German media say is in line to become finance minister if and when Merkel starts her fourth term with the SPD, will serve until members vote on Nahles’s nomination at a convention scheduled for April 22.

SPD was in need of new leadership after Martin Schulz, a former European Parliament president who led the party to its worst postwar result in Germany’s election in September, said Tuesday he’s stepping aside with immediate effect. He reaffirmed that he won’t seek a post in Merkel’s cabinet.

“The SPD needs an organizational, programmatic and personnel renewal, and I wanted to facilitate that,” Schulz told reporters in Berlin in announcing his retreat.

Contrary to Schulz, an outsider for many SPD members, Nahles is deeply entrenched in the party. She was head of the youth arm in the 1990s and emerged as one of the most prominent representatives of the Social Democrat’s powerful left wing, vocally opposing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s controversial labor reforms. She modified her image as a socialist rabble-rouser while serving in Merkel’s cabinet over the past four years. 

“The SPD is trying to calm the public with the change in leadership,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-Diba in Frankfurt. “But it shows that the party is divided, and the chances that the vote is turning against a grand coalition has increased.”

— With assistance by Iain Rogers, and Patrick Donahue

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