Josefin Graef

It came as a relief to many: 161 days after the federal elections in September 2017, the treasurer of the Social Democrats (SPD) Dietmar Nietan announced that 66% of the party’s members had voted in favour of forming a new grand coalition (‘Groko’) with Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance of CDU and CSU, based on a 78% turnout. The audience in the SPD’s headquarters in Berlin responded to the news with complete silence, reflecting how divided the party continues to be over the decision to form a government with its old coalition partners – despite the clear yes vote.

So how did we get here? After its disastrous election result of only 20.5%, a historical low for Germany’s oldest political party, then SPD leader Martin Schulz announced that the Social Democrats were going to use the ‘coming weeks and months to fundamentally reinvent themselves’ by leading the opposition. In late November, however, the talks for a ‘Jamaica’ coalition between CDU/CSU, Greens and Liberal Democrats collapsed. In spite of the fact that a government of CSU, CSU and SPD was the only other option to form a majority government, Schulz insisted that the losses which all three parties had incurred in the federal elections meant that voters did not want another grand coalition and new elections should be preferred.

Keen to avoid both a minority government and new elections, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the CDU/CSU leadership eventually managed to convince the SPD to enter into talks for a new grand coalition by appealing to its sense of responsibility. The adoption of a joint position paper in early January, a narrow ‘yes’ vote at a special SPD party conference later that month to begin coalition talks, and the successful negotiation of a coalition agreement in early February paved the way for a new ‘Groko’. In contrast to the CDU and CSU, the SPD decided to consult its more than 460,000 members about the agreement in a postal ballot. In 2013, the SPD members already approved the (much less controversial) grand coalition with nearly 76%, based on a 78% turnout. This year’s result may be less of a success for the party’s leadership, but it does mean that the last and final hurdle to form a new German government has been cleared.


What happens next?

It is now expected that the new government will take office before Easter. The German constitution lays out a clear procedure: Federal President Steinmeier has already formally proposed Angela Merkel – the candidate of the biggest parliamentary group, the CDU – as Chancellor to the Bundestag, the German federal parliament. The parliament will then vote on the proposal. In order to be elected, Merkel needs the absolute majority of the members of the Bundestag. Given that the SPD, CDU and CSU together hold more than 56% of the seats, this is very likely to happen. The Federal President then has 7 days to appoint Merkel as Chancellor, followed by the dismissal of her old cabinet and the appointment of the new ministers. The swearing-in ceremony for the Chancellor and her new cabinet is scheduled for 14 March. If Merkel is re-elected, she will enter into her 4th term as chancellor. Only two other chancellors before her – Konrad Adenauer (1949-1963) and Helmut Kohl (1984-1998) – stayed in office for more than three consecutive legislative periods.

Final decisions concerning the allocation of ministries will be made by the parties this week, with the SPD and the CSU holding 6 ministries each, and the CSU 3. During the coalition negotiations the SPD was able to secure the prestigious ministries for foreign affairs and finance. While the position of finance minister is likely to be given to acting party leader Olaf Scholz, it is still unclear whether Sigmar Gabriel will stay in office or be replaced. At a press conference on 4th March, Scholz merely confirmed that the SPD would nominate 3 women and 3 men.


A victory for the SPD?

Although the voting result is clearer than many would have expected given the surrounding controversies, it nevertheless shows how internally divided the SPD is. The party leadership celebrates the ballot as a democratic process that has brought the SPD closer together and demonstrates the SPD’s ability to debate controversial issues. Others, however – in particular the head of the party’s youth wing (Jusos), Kevin Kühnert, who led the campaign against a new ‘Groko’ – have argued that the SPD’s renewal process is only about to begin, based on political debate about the party’s and Germany’s future, and tied to the need to offer a new vision to its traditional electorate, workers and the middle class. The fact that the letter which accompanied the ballot papers sent out to each of the 460,000 members only listed the positives of the coalition agreement was seen by these critics as an attempt at stifling rather than encouraging debate for fear of the consequences of a ‘no’ vote. It remains to be seen whether the 50,000 new members that have joined the SPD over the past 15 months will in fact help to rejuvenate the party while it acts as a junior partner in a Merkel-led federal government.

One party that will no doubt benefit from the formation of a new grand coalition is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party that entered the Bundestag for the first time in September 2017 with 12.6% of the votes and is now set to lead the opposition as the third biggest party in parliament. A post on their Twitter account declared the new ‘Groko’ a ‘catastrophe for Germany’, equivalent to ‘four more years of horror’ that would result in greater support for the AfD in the next federal elections in 2021. Research findings on the AfD’s opposition work in various state parliaments show that many of its factions lack professionalization and a will for cooperation. At the same time, they successfully use the plenum as a platform to attract public attention for their positions. Similar dynamics can be observed in the Bundestag.


Reason for optimism?

Ultimately, what the German population expects are sustainable answers to the most pressing questions concerning social security, healthcare and the future of work, but also migration and inner security (ideally) in cooperation with its European partners. This is what the new government will be measured against. Abroad, stabilising Germany’s relationship with Poland and Turkey, managing the UK’s exit from the European Union, and finding a compromise with France’ President Emmanuel Macron on his ambitious plans for structural reforms of the Eurozone – one of the many topics that the coalition agreement does not spell out in sufficient detail – will pose the greatest challenges. Given the struggle to form a new grand coalition, the 3rd one under Merkel since 2005, and the fact that it is generally seen as the least bad option in an overall difficult situation does not set up the new government for a successful term. However, if the SPD manages to initiate the process of renewal that it has promised and Chancellor Merkel finds a way to ease her exit from the top of German (and European) politics – which might come before the end of this legislative period – there might be reason for optimism.


Josefin Graef is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum, a joint initiative by the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the London School of Economics and Political Science, funded by Stiftung Mercator.

Image: European Parliament CC BY-NC-ND