Tomorrow will mark 150 days since Germans went to the ballot box in September last year. After much back and forth, things are slowly falling into place.
The Social Democrats (SPD) have asked their 470,000 or so members to approve the coalition agreement concluded with Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU). The outcome of the vote, announced on 4 March, is binding.
If the party votes in favour of the agreement, the last stumbling block on the way to a new German government will have been overcome. Many in the SPD are ardently opposed to another coalition with Merkel’s forces, as they fear the damage another stint as her junior partner could deal to their party. Both proponents and critics of the coalition deal are still out on the campaign trail to sway the party’s rank and file to their cause.
Whereas the SPD could easily have rejected another grand coalition some weeks ago, things have become more intricate now. Coalition negotiations have come to a successful end, and its results are backed by the party leadership. Should the SPD now decide to pull out at the very last minute, its credibility would take serious damage. This would be a dangerous game to play.
Moreover, the SPD’s likely alternative to a grand coalition – snap elections – now look a worse bet than ever. The general election in 2017 signalled the party’s worst post-war electoral result, at a meagre 20.5 percent. Since then, the party’s poll numbers have fallen further.
Latest polls see the SPD floating between 19 and 15.5 percent. Meanwhile, the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) is on the rise. In a poll from this Monday, the AfD has moved ahead of the SPD for the first time ever, if only with a 0.5 percent lead. While this remains an outlier at this point, the threat of the SPD losing its position as the main competitor behind the CDU is real. With the Green Party rising as high as 14 percent in the polls, the SPD is facing increased competition on the moderate left as well.
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Should the social democrats decide to block the coalition, they may be set up for an even bigger defeat in the case of snap elections. The party’s failure to agree on a new, unifying leadership team since the elections further weakens their position.
Things look better on the other side, in the conservative camp of Angela Merkel. While she was faced significant criticism – both over her uninspired election campaign and the bungled coalition agreement – her union of CDU and CSU still polls between 32 and 34 percent, nearly twice the SPD’s numbers.
There are also signs that Merkel has acknowledged the party’s need for internal renewal, something repeatedly called for by different factions within the CDU. On Sunday, Merkel presented her choice for the party’s new general secretary, the very position she herself held directly before becoming party leader 18 years ago. It is more than simply a decision on personnel, but an indication of the way Merkel wants the party to develop after she is gone.
The chosen one is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (nicknamed AKK for simplicity), who earned her stripes as prime minister of the tiny German state of Saarland. While her move to the role of general secretary equals a nominal downgrading, it is seen by many as a preparatory step for a bigger role in Berlin. She will have the time to build new contacts and strengthen her public image – perhaps to follow Merkel in four years’ time.
AKK announced she wants to lead a “programmatic renewal” of the party. She certainly finds herself in the right position and time to do so. Her success will depend on how well she can bring together the party’s different factions.
Similarly to Merkel, AKK finds herself rather on the left wing of her party. She supports a national minimum wage and quotas for women in companies’ executive boards, and has in the past advocated to tax hikes for top earners. During the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, she supported Merkel’s liberal course to keep borders open.
During her press conference yesterday, Kramp-Karrenbauer said that sees the CDU’s future as “part of the centre”, adding that the party’s “conservative, christian social and liberal roots” all had to be considered. It was a first signal that while conservatism has its role to play in the party, it was not what should exclusively define it. And that instead of following calls to reclaim the political right – mainly in an attempt to crowd the AfD out of parliament again – she would keep the CDU on the centrist course steered by Merkel over the past years.
But there are signs that AKK may be able to unite the different camps. She supports the practice of mandatory x-rays to verify the exact age of underage asylum seekers, and demands more decisive action on deportations and the verification of asylum seekers’ identities. Her outspoken opposition to gay marriage may go down well among the CDU’s social conservatives.
The nomination of Kramp-Karrenbauer as general secretary still has to be approved during the party conference on 26 February. In return for the promotion of centrist AKK, the party’s conservative wing will likely push harder for one of their own to be promoted to cabinet – Jens Spahn is a likely candidate.
If all goes well, Germany will finally have a government come Easter. The CDU will have embarked on its road to self-renewal. And, who knows, maybe even the Social Democrats will have regained some sense of unity by then. Although I would not be too sure about the latter.
Leopold Traugott is a policy analyst at Open Europe