November 19, 2013 11:18 am

Fate of German coalition hinges on SPD referendum

.epa03949956 The federal chairman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel, speaks to the delegates during the SPD federal party conference in Leipzig, Germany, 14 November 2013. Gabriel was re-elected with 83.6 per cent which is his worst result so far. The conference takes place in Leipzig from 14 to 16 November 2013. EPA/KAY NIETFELD

On the face of it, chancellor Angela Merkel holds all the aces in the negotiations to form Germany’s next coalition government.

But the cautious winner of the parliamentary elections faces a serious challenge from her main negotiating partner, Sigmar Gabriel, the impulsive 54-year-old leader of the centre-left Social Democrats.

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Mr Gabriel has some big cards to play – and none bigger than the party referendum the SPD plans to give its 470,000 members for the decisive say on any coalition.

If the members vote no, the bid to build a grand right-left coalition will collapse – and with it hopes of creating a new German government before the year-end. Political uncertainty would follow and, possibly, new elections. Jürgen Falter, professor of politics at Mainz University, says: “This is a risk that cannot be controlled. The fate of the coalition is the hands of the SPD members.”

The referendum will be held only after Ms Merkel, Mr Gabriel and CSU chief Horst Seehofer agree on a preliminary deal, probably at the end of November. But last week’s SPD party conference came as a sharp reminder of the difficulties Mr Gabriel will face keeping his own troops in order. As one SPD MP, Klaus Barthel, said bluntly: “If we were voting now, the result would be a clear no.”

The party’s anger stems from the election result in which the SPD won only 26 per cent in its second-worst result ever, against 41.5 per cent for Ms Merkel’s conservative two-party alliance, the CDU/CSU

At the Leipzig gathering, held in the city’s huge industrial exhibition halls, the SPD left led the way in putting pressure on officials who have been most enthusiastic for a coalition, notably Olaf Scholz, the Hamburg mayor.

He stood for one of five deputy leader posts and saw his support drop from 84.9 per cent to 67.3 per cent. Mr Gabriel suffered too – in an uncontested vote for party leader he saw his support plunge to 83.6 per cent from 91.6 per cent in 2011.

As the Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit said: “Among the SPD grassroots there is strong emotional opposition to a grand coalition. Everything depends on the results of the negotiations.”

The members are right to be sceptical. The last grand coalition with Ms Merkel, in 2005-9, ended in triumph for the chancellor and disaster for the SPD with its worst-ever poll result of 23 per cent.

The SPD’s 2009 failure had much to do with its association with earlier labour market reforms agreed by former social democrat chancellor Gerhard Schröder. This appalled the party left and sent many into the arms of Linke, the far-left grouping formed by former east German Communists.

Mr Gabriel, environment minister in the 2005-9 coalition, has pledged a “good” coalition agreement, or none at all. In a striking phrase in his conference speech, he said: “To keep the SPD together is more important than to govern.”

The key to keeping the party together will be sellable coalition deal. Top of the list is a legally enforceable €8.50 minimum hourly wage, followed by double-citizenship rights for German-born people of foreign origin who would no longer be required to choose, as they are now, between Germany and, for example, Turkey.

Also important are planned pensions increases, a women’s quota for company boards and infrastructure spending.

So far, CDU/CSU leaders have reacted fairly calmly to these demands. Possible deals are under discussion on a minimum wage, pensions, infrastructure and women’s quotas.

However, double citizenship is much more contentious. And Ms Merkel has warned that all proposals involving spending must be assessed together – and financed without raising taxes or increasing debts. As often with such deals, nothing is agreed until everything is.

Even if everything comes together, Ms Merkel may find this grand coalition tougher to manage than the last.

Mr Gabriel has made clear that it is a pragmatic arrangement designed to get SPD policies enacted. At the conference he won party approval for a radical tactical change – the end of a ban on possible coalitions with Linke, the far-left grouping that emerged from the DDR Communist party.

Mr Gabriel said Linke, which wants to pull out of Nato, would remain beyond the pale as long as it stuck to its current policies.

But his modest lurch to the left leaves open the possibility of a future deal with Linke after the 2017 elections. If the Green party also came on board, that would give the SPD two options for forming a government – one with the CDU and the other with Linke and the Greens. The political landscape would be transformed.

The threat to the CDU is clear. In today’s parliament an SPD-Green-Linke alliance would have a majority – 320 seats versus Ms Merkel’s 311. Only Linke’s radicalism stands in the way. Not for nothing did Spiegel magazine call Mr Gabriel’s shift “the Timebomb”.

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