Germany's Socialists agonise over participation in government

BERLIN - Germany's main opposition Social Democratic party gathers on Thursday (Dec 7) in the capital for a three-day congress to decide whether the centre-left political movement should join a coalition government with Chancellor Angela Merkel, thereby ending one of the longest periods of political uncertainty in modern German history.

The party's leaders favour a coalition with the chancellor. But rank-and-file members of the SPD, as the party is known by its German acronym, are highly sceptical of such a "grand coalition".

The last federal elections held in September produced an inconclusive result. Dr Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) went down by almost 9 per cent to win only 33 per cent of the popular vote, their worst result since the end of World War II.

And the SPD's share of the vote plunged even further, garnering only 20 per cent of the votes, its worst result in a century.

The country's two main political parties used to rely on the loyalty of around 80 per cent of the electorate; now, they cannot even attract half of the voters, and their natural constituencies are being poached by fringe parties.

The biggest threat to Dr Merkel's Christian Democrats comes from the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right, anti-immigrant movement which came out of nowhere to win 12.6 per cent of the votes in September.

The SPD has an equally big challenge from the so-called Die Linke, a far-left party which sprang out of the old communists in the former East Germany, and now attracts the support of almost a tenth of the national electorate.

Given its disastrous electoral performance, one of the first decisions which SPD leader Martin Schulz took after the ballot was to announce that he was ending the "grand coalition" arrangement which the SPD had with Dr Merkel since 2013, and that the party will return to the opposition parliamentary bench in order to rebuild its power base.

However, since Dr Merkel failed to form a coalition with two small centrist parties, only an alliance with the SPD would now give her a working majority in the German parliament, or Bundestag.

Any failure to secure a deal could lead to either fresh elections or force Dr Merkel to attempt to form a minority government, guaranteeing further instability.

Mr Schulz, who used to serve as president of the European parliament, claims to have come under pressure from European heads of governments, all urging him to end Germany's current stalemate by entering into a coalition.

And other SPD leaders argue that only by sharing power would the party be able to implement its social welfare agenda.

"In my view, the best way to do that is by way of a formal coalition agreement," said Mr Johannes Kahrs, an influential SPD legislator who helped negotiate the formation of the last German government.

The snag is that the party's rank-and-file gathered in Berlin do not share this view.

A poll conducted by Spiegel, one of the country's most influential political magazines, has found that although 57 per cent of SPD's regular voters believe their party should somehow support a Merkel government, only 28 per cent favour a new grand coalition.

Their reticence is understandable, for Dr Merkel has a knack of using coalitions to claim personal credit for popular moves, while deflecting blame for any unpopular decisions to her government partners.

Every party which entered into a coalition arrangement with Dr Merkel over the past 12 years she has been in power ended up losing votes at the subsequent elections.

SPD leaders will, therefore, have to work hard to persuade their party members that entering into a Merkel-led government is a wise choice.

Ways around the problem exist. Mr Hans Eichel, a former SPD finance minister, argues that the party should agree to only a two-year coalition deal, rather than one which covers the full four-year term of the current parliament. That, he claims, would ensure that the chancellor will not be able to ignore the party's social welfare agenda.

Other party activists suggest that the SPD should simply let Dr Merkel form a minority government, and undertake to support it on a case-by-case basis. They argue that this will ensure that Germany has a functioning government, and that the SPD "regains its soul" as a critic of Dr Merkel's market-based economic management.

Either way, it is clear that Germany will not have a new government before the end of this year.

And whatever government is ultimately formed, it would be more concerned with maintaining political stability at home, rather than providing the leadership Europe currently needs.