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As the Social Democrats are opening up to coalition talks with Angela Merkel's conservative union of CDU and CSU, Open Europe's Leopold Traugott assesses the likelihood and intricacies of a possible agreement.
27 November 2017
One week after the breakdown of German coalition talks, things are slowly moving into gear. Following an intervention by the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrats (SPD) abandoned their outright rejection of another coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservatives (CDU/CSU). The first talks will take place this week, and will put the SPD in a difficult spot.
The SPD’s willingness to enter a new dialogue should not be over-interpreted. Over the last days, pressure on the party had mounted to such an extent that it no longer simply could sit things out. Yet, the reasons why the Social Democrats initially announced their opposition to another coalition with the conservatives are still valid. The SPD’s aim to regain its profile as counter pole to the CDU will hardly be achieved when in coalition with them. A continuation of their Grand Coalition – it would be the third time in the last four terms – still risks further strengthening the populist fringes of Germany’s political landscape. Austria’s recent elections, where the far-right surged following decades of Social Democratic and Conservative consensus-government, serve as a stern warning. And then there is the problem of Martin Schulz. After having fervently rejected the idea of a coalition with Merkel throughout the last months, caving in would deal a decisive blow to his already weak position. While some SPD politicians will approach the talks in a constructive spirit, others may see it as a face-saving exercise with no solution intended.
Schulz already caveated that, should his party’s leadership committee decide to support Merkel in government (either in a coalition or under a minority government), this decision would be put to a vote by all party members. While this is in tradition with past coalition talks – the SPD let its members take a vote on the coalition agreement with CDU and CSU in 2013 – it is also a useful hedge. Should the membership disapprove of any governmental involvement, Martin Schulz and his allies can wash their hands of responsibility for leaving Merkel out in the cold. Should the members approve, they will have a hard time blaming the party leadership for what follows. The Social Democrats’ party youth already voiced its opinion during its conference this past weekend: the 300 delegates voted unanimously against another ‘Grand Coalition’. In about two weeks time, when the general party conference is held, the mood will likely be better. Polls suggest that 36% of SPD members are in favour of a new coalition with CDU and CSU, making the option less popular than backing a CDU-led minority government from opposition (48%), but more popular than new elections (13%).
As Social Democrats weigh up risks and benefits, the conservative CDU and CSU are rolling out the red carpet for them. The CDU’s leadership committee yesterday unanimously backed another ‘Grand Coalition’ as the preferable solution to the current impasse. The same day, Horst Seehofer, leader of the CSU and Minister President of Bavaria, called a new ‘Grand Coalition’ “the best solution for Germany, better in every case than [a] Jamaica [coalition], new elections or a minority government.” There are internal disagreements over the details. While CDU deputy chairwoman Julia Kloeckner is trying to reduce pressure by cautioning that coalition talks should not be expected to commence before January 2018, her party youth branch just issued a statement announcing that should there be no coalition agreement by Christmas, “the negotiations have to be seen as having failed.” It is unlikely that the CDU will be the party to pull the plug on talks. They have much to win and little to lose from a new ‘Grand Coalition’.
Should the SPD refuse to back the conservatives, German politics comes back to the fork in the road I outlined in my last blog. Merkel could either opt for a minority government – an option she has ruled out so far, but which is backed by senior members of her party – or decide to call new elections. The darkest cloud hanging over new elections is the fear that they might not change anything. Latest polls show little changes in voting intentions. While the Greens are experiencing a small boost of three percent, no other party faces losses or gains of more than two percent. For new elections to improve the situation, they would need to result in a significant shift of votes or be accompanied by a radical change in leadership of at least one of the key parties. If neither of this happens, new elections would see Germany face a €100m bill and six further months without a new government – just to in the end realise that very little changed at all.