GroKo 3.0 or #nogroko
Despite the SPD only winning 20.5% of the vote the party still managed to gain to key concessions from its (possible) future coalition partner. However, opposition is growing amongst SPD grassroots activists, headed by the leader of the Young Socialists, Kevin Kühnert, with his #nogroko campaign. While the leaders of both parties are in favour of forming yet another grand coalition, SPD members still have to agree to accept the party entering such a coalition. And their consent is far from certain.
Kevin Kühnert - Can he overthrow politics as usual? (Photo: Jusos/Instagram)
The September 2017 Bundestag elections ended devastatingly for Germany’s two main parties - Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU (referred to as CDU in this article) and the Social Democrats (SPD). While the CDU might have lost significantly more seats, the SPD actually achieved their worst election result in the history of the Federal Republic, with only 20.5%. Not that the CDU should be proud of their election result (the second worst), however, when viewing the 2013 elections as an outlier, the CDU didn’t do too badly, especially considering this was the first national election since the refugee crisis. The big winners of the election were the small parties critical of Angela Merkel’s immigration policy - the liberal FDP and the populist AfD. Also noteworthy, the 19th Bundestag, with 709 MPs from 7 parties, is the biggest in the history of the Federal Republic. Since 1957 (the only federal election CDU won an absolute majority) there haven’t been as many parties represented in Germany’s parliament. It is also the first time since 1960 that a party politically further to the right than the CDU is represented in the federal parliament - the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
The only possible coalitions are another grand coalition (between the CDU/CSU and SPD) or a so-called Jamaica coalition between the CDU, FDP and the Greens. The latter failed after several weeks of exploratory talks due to the huge differences between the parties. The talks between the CDU and the SPD (who are currently in a coalition) turned into official coalition talks in mid-January, which are likely to end in the next few weeks. However, unlike the CDU, the Social Democrats require a vote from party delegates and members. The former already voted narrowly to commence coalition talks at the party congress in Bonn, albeit with only 56.4%. The party members are currently voting in postal ballot whether to accept or reject a another grand coalition (known as GroKo), which will end on March 3. Under normal circumstances this shouldn’t be an issue. After all, the SPD was already able to secure key positions in the future cabinet (i.e. foreign affairs, finance and labour), include pro-European commitments, dilute the CSU’s demands to restrict immigration and make social justice an important theme of the coalition deal. Under less favourable conditions to the SPD in 2013, the party members voted 76% in support to form a GroKo.
Nevertheless, this time around there is a pretty high chance that members will reject the SPD leadership’s plan and demand a reorientation of the party. Opponents of another GroKo, led by leader of the SPD’s youth wing the Young Socialists (Jusos), Kevin Kühnert, are touring the country to convince members to reject the recommendations of the entire party leadership. His main criticism of yet another GroKo is the “racist bullshit of the CSU”. He would like to reposition the party to the left; i.e. tax the rich more, increase the minimum wage and “increase the chances of being able to afford a pad in your favourite hood”. He has marketed all of these demands under the hashtag #nogroko (read: no grand coalition).
The first victim of the infighting in the SPD is Martin Schulz, the former party leader and chancellor candidate, who fought the elections under a banner of social justice and vehemently rejected another GroKo after the elections only to change his opinion in a dramatic u-turn a few months later. Not only did he resign as party leader but was also forced to reject the possibility of becoming the next foreign minister by former party leader (and current foreign minister) Sigmar Gabriel. In another public embarrassment to the party, the top leadership announced Andrea Nahles to be the next party leader. However, after much protest from party members, the decision was revoked until a special party conference in April will democratically elect a new leader.
According to a recent ARD-DeutschlandTrend poll, voters are not appreciating the party infighting and Kühnert’s #nogroko campaign. If there had been a general election last Sunday, only 16% would have voted for the SPD, making the party almost as popular as the AfD (which has also been plagued by infighting). According to an INSA/YouGov poll, the AfD has even surpassed the SPD. Interestingly, support for a grand coalition and Merkel have also dropped since the elections, even though support for her party seems to remain stable.
So what does this tell us? Firstly, the figures could tempt SPD party members to reject the GroKo to force the party to change its outlook, similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s election in the UK. Secondly, a GroKo would not have enough support in parliament in case of a new election. Thirdly, rejecting a GroKo would have to result in new elections and/or a minority CDU government and further political instability. And finally, Kühnert’s #nogroko campaign symbolises the aimlessness and ultimately demise of the Social Democrats and a shift in modern German politics, where the SPD is increasingly losing its status as a major party (Volkspartei).
There is little evidence that German voters wish the SPD to become leftist protest party comparable to that of Jeremy Corbyn’s version of Labour. After all, there is already an established party occupying that role in Germany - The Left (Die Linke). In addition to the competition from the left is the CDU, which is currently dominated by its liberal/centrist wing. Positioning the SPD as a leftist protest party (and thereby rejecting governmental responsibility) could, therefore, encourage many voters to vote conservative. Not to mention that it would be almost impossible to find credible leadership figures to represent such a shift after over four years of a coalition with the centre-right CDU with most prominent SPD leaders in cabinet positions. This strategy already failed with Martin Schulz, who until appointed party leader one year ago was President of the European Parliament and therefore not linked to the GroKo.
Leading to the second and third argument, that a realignment would hardly result in more votes. Germans value political stability and would punish the SPD for choosing party politics over political responsibility. Of course this puts the party in a hugely precarious situation. On the one hand, if the party fails to realign itself, voters will see the SPD as an extension of the CDU and rather cast their votes elsewhere. On the other hand, if the party shifts to the left, voters might prefer to vote for the “authentic”protest party on the left or migrate to the Green Party and to the right, as the latest INSA/YouGov poll suggests. In other words, the realignment might be popular amongst party activists and young urbanites, but could prove devastating at the next elections.
Finally, either the GroKo or the #nogroko would result in radical change in Germany’s political landscape, away from the two major party system, where one party ruled with the support of a smaller coalition partner to minority governments and larger coalitions almost certainly lead by the CDU. The grand coalitions since 2005 already hinted at such a shift, however, the aimlessness of the SPD leadership, including the recent u-turns, and the success of the AfD only fostered this development. In all fairness, whilst this article might only cover the infighting in the SPD, the CDU has also been undergoing tectonic shifts since the elections; recently the secretary general, Peter Tauber, resigned and Merkel’s authority has diminished vastly, making it unlikely for her to continue in case of new elections. Yet the SPD’s problems seem more acute and either options don’t guarantee the political survival (or at least as one of the two large parties) of Germany’s oldest party in any obvious way.
In conclusion, even though the SPD only won 20.5% of the vote it still managed to seal a pretty neat deal, including gaining the powerful finance ministry. This has in part to do with Merkel’s increasingly desperate position to finally form a new government. However, the #nogroko campaign headed by Jusos leader Kühnert could potentially convince SPD members to reject a yet another loveless grand coalition. This would force the CDU to form a minority government, potentially triggering a leadership contest amongst the conservatives, which in turn could result in the president having to call new elections. Voters will most likely punish both parties, even though the SPD will probably be hit worse. The small parties will profit either way, especially the two on the fringes, The Left and the AfD.