The past weeks could not have shown the differences between Germany’s two dominant parties, the Christian Conservatives and the Social Democrats, any better. Both coming from a devastating loss in the September election, one stands united with secure leadership and personnel that could lead the party towards the future once the current leader leaves the picture. The other, in a very fragile situation already, has little leadership and is completely divided about its future course. The former, of course, is Angela Merkel’s CDU, while the latter are the Social Democrats that by Sunday will have made the decision whether to form a government with the CDU.
For the Social Democrats, either outcome could spell doom. The party essentially seems to be split over the idea of a repeat coalition. Over the past four elections, their voter share has halved, from 40.9 percent in 1998 to 20.5 percent in 2017. Particularly devastating was the 2009 election (23 percent), right after the first Grand Coalition under Angela Merkel as Chancellor. Yet, Merkel hardly seems to be the only reason for the continued downturn. Labour and economic policies introduced by SPD Chancellor Schröder (the infamous Hartz-Reforms) have led to a chasm on the left wing of the party that seem to have permanently exiled many former Social Democratic voters.
Now, it is on all members of the party to decide on whether to continue the past course or take a turn to the left. The party establishment would have loved to regroup in the opposition, but the failure of the so-called Jamaica coalition (CDU/CSU, Greens and Liberals) didn’t allow for this. In the coalition however, returning to a leftist course, seems to be impossible. Even though, according to AI analysis, the proposed coalition contract consists up mostly out of SPD policy positions and even though the SPD was granted three of the most important ministries (Finance, Labour, Foreign Affairs), the coalition would still operate firmly in the middle of the political spectrum. Apparently, not enough for the left wing of the SPD, which somewhat convincingly argue that the Social Democrats renew themselves in such a coalition.
This could tear apart the party for good. The party’s youth organization, behind its Chairman Kevin Kühnert, is campaigning against entering the coalition and the outcome of the inner-party referendum is a coin toss. The party leadership is firmly campaigning for a Grand Coalition and would certainly have to resign should the decision not be in their favour. That would mean that the SPD would have transitioned from the chairmanship of Sigmar Gabriel (currently Minister of Foreign Affairs) through Martin Schulz, who recently turned over the office to Andrea Nahles (former Minister of Labour) to an entirely new leadership, whomever that would be.
Contrastingly, the CDU is having little such problems. For a brief moment, it seemed as if Angela Merkel would have to worry about her immediate future.
Amidst the CDU’s own losses in the election, she managed to negotiate on two potential coalitions in her usual way, making little public noise and in more of a moderating role. In the instance of the Jamaica coalition, this failed entirely. In the second instance, she had to give up on many policy positions and also had to hand over the Ministry of Finance.
Expectedly, this riled up the conservative wing of the party. But much unlike the SPD, Merkel needed only a few moves to quell the unrest. The CDU’s youth organisation wanted a party convention to discuss the coalition contract – Merkel granted the wish. The conservative wing wanted representation in the would-be cabinet – Merkel axed her close confidante Hermann Gröhe (until now Minister for Healthcare) and gave the position to one of the young leaders of the conservative wing (Jens Spahn, 37). Making place for Horst Seehofer, Chairman of the Bavarian CSU and until now State Premier, is longtime Merkel ally and Minister for the Interior Thomas de Maizière.
Lastly, Merkel needed someone to take care of the party. The last few years saw losses among the party base, members who defected because they didn’t identify with Merkel’s political course. She knew she couldn’t fulfil the integratory role that the party needed. Hence, she pulled Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (otherwise known as AKK), until now State Premier in the Saar region, out of her hat. Technically, AKK (55 years old) isn’t really young. Technically, she isn’t a member of the Christian-conservative wing. Technically, she has been a close ally of the Chancellor for quite a while.
But yet, AKK is enough of an integratory figure that she can represent most of the party base. At the party convention last Monday, she gave a rousing speech that sparked hope that she might also be someone who can transition the party into the time after Merkel.
By Sunday, we will know whether we will soon have a functioning government or not. There is hope, that we do. But in any case, the two parties have a very different path to success. Angela Merkel seems on a good path to allow for a smooth transition of the CDU into the time after her Chancellorship. For the SPD, the transition process seems nothing but smooth., whether they enter the coalition or not.