Four more years of Merkel
THE GERMAN GENERAL ELECTION last September brought a result that will have surprised few: another term for Christian Democrat Chancellor Angela Merkel leading a grand coalition with the Social Democrats, with the far right Alternative for Germany coming in third.
For a long time, almost every regional or national German election result seemed to include the phrase ‘lowest percentage ever for the SPD’. The party of August Bebel, Willy Brandt, or Gerhard Schröder, on whom the blame for much of the party's almost terminal malaise lies, seems moribund. Branches rarely meet, activists are few and the membership is ageing.
The SPD were expecting so much more than 20.5%. Martin Schulz, a school drop-out, alcoholic, failed city mayor, yet paradoxically ex-President of the European Parliament with a love for dodgy expenses claims, ‘elected’ unanimously as leader by an SPD conference, turned out to be less of a blessing than expected, running on a thin manifesto and accompanied by an unofficial and Trump-esque slogan 'Make Europe Great Again'.
“From tomorrow the CDU/CSU will get punched in the face,” said new SPD leader Andrea Nahles. But then concern for the ‘national’ interest’ set in, as talks between the CDU/CSU, on 32.9% of the vote, the Greens and the neo-liberal Free Democrats failed, over energy and migration policy differences. A minority government would be new and extremely unlikely and the SPD didn’t want a fresh general election. So the membership had to be convinced - by the thinnest of majorities - to entrust the leadership with starting talks with Merkel, deciding on three red lines: equal payment for doctors regardless of whether the patient is privately insured or in the social insurance system; the abolition of a Schröder-era labour regulation which gives bosses the right to employ people on temporary contracts without good reason; and the right for recognised refugees to bring their families. Plus a referendum of all SPD members, in which those for and against any coalition agreement would get equal access to the membership.
This was so narrowly carried that if the leadership were removed from the voting score, it would not have passed - at a conference largely comprising ‘delegates’ employed by the party or related organisations.
Once the coalition agreement was in place, which included none of the three red lines, it was up to the membership to decide. Leading members of Momentum came to Berlin to advise opponents of the shoddy deal. An online campaign to encourage people to join the party for 2.50 euros - join for a month, vote against, leave again – was started. The leader of the SPD's Young Socialists, Kevin Kuhnert travelled around the country for a month, arguing for a No vote. When the ballot papers went out in February, accompanied by a three-page letter signed by the entire party leadership, pleading for a Yes vote - and nothing from the other side - it still wasn't clear what the result would be.
But with a largely passive, ageing membership, the result was roughly two-thirds Yes on a 78% turnout. New finance minister and SPD right winger Olaf Scholz said that he hoped the 24,000 new members would remain. It seems likely that the 15,000 invalid ballot papers may have come from new party comrades who did not read the details on how to cast their postal ballot properly.
At the same time, the Left Party has not managed to gain from the SPD's internal chaos. Its own leadership is uninspiring and, in the case of Sahra Wagenknecht and her partner, former ‘most dangerous man in Europe’ Oskar Lafontaine, plays to the far right on issues such as sexual equality, ‘sovereignty’ and migration - hardly attractive to left wing critics of mainstream social democracy. Wagenknecht seems to want to turn her party into a ‘movement’ focused on one person (or couple), based on Mélenchon's La France Insoumise.
Germany has been rewarded, just six months after the general election, with a new conservative government. A Yougov poll on 5th March puts the SPD currently neck and neck with the far right Alternative for Germany on 15%, once again, its lowest percentage ever.