11 October 2017

Germans are heading to the polls again this Sunday. Not all of them this time, only those living in the north-western state of Lower Saxony. With 7.9 million inhabitants, this is the fourth most populous of Germany’s Länder. There are two important reasons to closely watch these elections and what follows thereafter: first, the end of these state elections will herald the actual start of German coalition negotiations; second, they might also herald the beginning of the end for the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), Martin Schulz.

Coalition talks about to start, as CDU and CSU come together

Although federal elections took place more than two weeks ago, coalition talks have not yet officially begun. Bringing together a functioning “Jamaica Coalition” of Christian Democrats (Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, plus its Bavarian sister party CSU), Free Democrats (FDP) and Green Party will prove difficult enough. Until last Sunday, however, the endeavour was complicated even further by profound internal differences in the Christian Democratic camp. Nominally two separate parties, with the CSU fielding candidates in Bavaria only and the CDU in all other fifteen German states, both form the so-called “Union” at federal level, an agreement that has held since 1949. Over recent years, however, this union has increasingly come under strain. As Merkel gradually moved the CDU from its traditional centre-right position in German politics to the absolute centre, her Bavarian allies refused to move along, leading to a growing estrangement between the two sides.

The growing gap between the CDU and CSU on refugee and immigration policy has become problematic. In 2015, the CSU chairman Horst Seehofer even threatened legal action against Merkel for her “open door” refuge policy, and has since then pushed relentlessly for a cap (“Obergrenze”) of 200,000 on refugee intake, a measure fervently rejected by Merkel until recently. The two parties needed to find a common position on this issue ahead of upcoming talks with the FDP and the Green Party. They ultimately agreed on a compromise: a “soft cap” that aims at limiting “humanitarian immigration” at 200,000 per year, but is adaptable in times of crisis. This paper tiger of a legislative proposal is unlikely to change German migration policy, because it would first need to survive negotiations with the FDP and the Green Party. But it does at least allow exploratory talks on a new coalition to begin.

Busy week ahead

Exploratory talks will commence next week Wednesday, 18 October, with the CDU/CSU block holding meetings with the FDP and separately with the Green Party. On Thursday, 19 October, the FDP and the Green Party will get together for bilateral talks, followed by a joint meeting of all four parties on Friday, 20 October. With state elections over by then, parties will slowly be able to lower campaigning rhetoric and signal room for compromise. Still, don’t expect a quick fix, as there are significant disagreements between all four parties on key issues. While criticism by the FDP and the Green Party of the CDU/CSU’s “soft cap” proposal is likely to dominate the early debate, the parties also disagree profoundly on larger issues including Eurozone reform, environmental protection, and the automobile industry.

How long can Martin Schulz still go?

Just seven months ago, in March this year, the SPD elected Martin Schulz as their new party chairman and lead candidate for the federal elections with 100 percent of the vote. Since then, the party has lost four elections.  Schulz’s personal responsibility for the three lost elections at state level – Saarland in March, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia in May – is debatable but nonetheless they reflect poorly on him. The lost federal election this September, which saw the SPD suffer its worst result since 1949, is a significant humiliation for Schulz.

While Schulz is still popular among the rank and file of his party, many in the higher echelons have lost trust in him. The upcoming elections in Lower Saxony are an opportunity for Schulz to show he can win elections. In that state the SPD currently polls at 33%, one point ahead of the CDU and far ahead of all the others (FDP 10% / Greens 10% / AfD 7% / The Left 5%), so an electoral success is easily possible. Should, however, Sunday’s elections end in a fifth electoral defeat for the SPD under Schulz, and the loss of another state which for the last four years was governed by a coalition of the SPD and the Green Party, existing demands for a change of leadership may become even louder.

The SPD has announced it will pursue a path of self-renewal following its historic defeat on 24 September, going into parliamentary opposition and re-building itself as a thoroughly left-wing alternative to the CDU. The extent to which Martin Schulz and his team fit into this renewed image is questionable. He remains party chairman for now, but already had to concede leadership of the SPD’s parliamentary group to Andrea Nahles, an internal competitor from the party’s left wing. He even failed to push through his confidant Hubertus Heil as party whip, a post given to Carsten Schneider instead. While it is still too early to announce the end of Martin Schulz as leader of the SPD, his position is definitely a weak one. Should his party lose another crucial majority on Sunday, it will become even weaker.