Define and Deliver: The SPD Party Conference
Four months after Germans went to the polls to set the stage for a new government, they are finally a step closer. The vote at the January 21 SPD party conference resulted in a slim majority supporting negotiations with the CDU and CSU to form a coalition. The fact that almost half of the 645 voting party leaders—representing the sixteen German states and party leaders in Berlin—were against those negotiations will haunt the SPD leadership as they try to craft the platform for a viable and sustainable government.
This vote came after initial negotiations explored whether there was sufficient common ground to proceed with working on a coalition agreement. Hoping to strengthen its hand, the SPD leadership decided to present delegates with the option to vote on the issue, resulting in 362 in favor compared to 279 against.
The split in the SPD ranks was described as a clash between those who feel that a third grand coalition under Chancellor Merkel will only further undermine the SPD and those who argue that the SPD cannot refuse its responsibility to steer the coalition government in a direction that represents and implements its core policy decisions. For some, it is a question of renewal and reform. The argument that the SPD can renew and reform itself in the coalition government seemed to fail among those who have seen the SPD lose traction in two previous coalitions with Chancellor Merkel.
There was also the unavoidable credibility issue for the SPD leadership—especially its leader, Martin Schulz—after it had vehemently refused the option of forming a coalition with Angela Merkel immediately after the election. That was most visible in the lukewarm applause Schulz received in his appeal for the coalition. Indeed, the applause generated by those arguing against the coalition was much more vibrant, particularly from younger delegates.
But the issues were actually much bigger than the tactical concerns. The fact is, the so-called grand coalition appears to be a political anachronism in a period when many feel there needs to be much more fundamental changes in dealing with challenges like immigration, economic transformation, educational policies, or foreign policy. The accusation is that another agreement between the SPD and the CDU/CSU wouldn’t accomplish that—it would result in lowest common denominators and kicking the larger issues down the road. This is being debated in an environment in which the economy is healthy and yet there are worries that it might not be sustainable—in an environment in which Germany’s responsibility on the global stage is being discussed without clear steps how it can be met—in an environment in which the central issue of immigration and refugee challenges are being confronted without a coherent policy response.
Some of these issues are caught up in a conversation about Angela Merkel’s long twelve-year tenure as chancellor and her style of crisis management. That relates as much to the fact that there is no clear successor in her party, as to the SPD leadership’s inability to generate much popular support on the national stage, let alone the fact that the Social Democrats are polling at 20 percent.
Meanwhile if the grand (or not so grand) coalition actually emerges, those parties who will be in the opposition ranks—the Greens, the FDP, the Left, and the AfD—will all be thinking about their futures. The AfD would be the largest opposition party, which strengthens its role in the Bundestag. It has the right of first debate response to government positions and can claim committee chairs, among other advantages. How that will help or hurt its new presence in the Bundestag will depend on how it manages that opportunity. The Greens will be choosing new leadership and positioning themselves as a future coalition partner. The FDP has a strong leader and will be aiming to follow a similar strategy at both the federal and state level. The Left will continue to argue for a majority left-of-center but will remain strongest in its regional base.
Of course, the SPD’s new coalition negotiations with the CDU/CSU could also fail over the next several weeks—and then Germany will be faced with a decision quicker than it thinks in the form of new elections. Whether that would create the possibility of a new chancellor emerging remains to be seen. What is more likely is that this grand collation will be formed, implemented, and tested. Most expectations at this point suggest that it might hold for less than the four years normally extended to a new government.
Either way, Germany is bracing itself for a new, perhaps intimidating but necessary set of questions about its future, expedited by an emerging generational change in party leadership.
The SPD party meeting seemed to suggest that there is a recognition—indeed a need—to get beyond what some call an endless loop of debate and postponed policy decisions. The cost of not facing that challenge could lead to increased frustration among voters and an opportunity for those who are capable of exploiting it to inject an alternative approach. One can see scenarios of that in the politics of several countries in Europe as well as in the U.S.
Yet if there seemed to be one area that suggested a shared consensus in the party, it was crafting the next phase of Europe. It was on that subject that Martin Schulz expended most of his energy in the conference, citing his conversations with French president Emmanuel Macron and the importance of Franco-German relations as the basis of joint architects and engineers. Pushing that agenda forward in a grand coalition would make common cause within the SPD and with the CDU/CSU as reflected in the exploratory talks held in past weeks. The question is whether other domestic issues will distract or disrupt such efforts in forging a coalition agreement.
The title of the SPD delegate conference was “a new era needs new policy.” The next step: define the era and then deliver policy.