What happened in the UK in 2016 is now happening in Germany. A referendum is causing total havoc in the political system. In the German case, it is not a national referendum but a poll among 464,000 members of the centre-left Social Democratic party.
If they vote to reject the grand coalition with Angela Merkel, chancellor and head of the Christian Democrats, her political reign could come to a sudden stop. Or it might drag on for a short while until new elections produce a new majority, possibly without her. The SPD’s referendum results will be known on March 4. It is going to be a big day for Europe, as Italy also goes to the polls.
Last week, the CDU, the CSU — its Bavarian twin — and the SPD agreed a renewal of their current grand coalition. But SPD strategists and Berlin-based political commentators massively underestimated the ongoing revolt among SPD grassroots members in the constituencies, who are fed up with permanent grand coalitions. They argue, as I have done, that semi-permanent grand coalitions weaken the centre in the long run and strengthen smaller radical parties, like the Alternative for Germany.
On one level, the SPD scored a big success in the negotiations. Despite its massive vote losses at the last elections, it ended up with some of the top jobs in government. The finance ministry will go to Olaf Scholz, SPD mayor of Hamburg, a fiscally conservative supply-sider. Martin Schulz, SPD leader, wanted to become foreign minister.
All this not only failed to impress the grassroots, it reaffirmed their suspicion that the grand coalition is all about ministerial limousines and not about content. Kevin Kühnert, head of the SPD youth organisation, nailed it when he said it was horrifying that the SPD was talking about its own government jobs and not about policy.
What made everything so much worse were Mr Schulz’s repeated U-turns. On election night, September 24 2017, he promised not to enter into a grand coalition with Ms Merkel. Earlier, he had promised never to serve under her as a minister. On top of those two U-turns, he committed a third one. Mr Schulz always talked about Sigmar Gabriel, serving foreign minister and his predecessor as SPD leader, as a personal friend. But at the end of the coalition talks Mr Schulz removed Mr Gabriel, his erstwhile friend, from the list of SPD ministers, and decided to take the foreign ministry job himself. This was despite the fact that Mr Gabriel is the SPD’s most popular politician.
Over the next two days, revolt broke out in the open. The SPD’s leadership told Mr Schulz to pull out. On Friday, he did. He had already announced his intention to step down as party chairman. Celebrated as a political high flyer a year ago, Mr Schulz has lost everything: the elections, the party leadership, and now the prospective job of foreign minister. Mr Gabriel will probably also have to go. It is a big mess.
The big question is whether Mr Schulz’s sacrifice will be sufficient to persuade a majority of SPD members to vote in favour of the grand coalition. The SPD’s leadership has come out of this looking like treacherous plotters. It must surely be tempting, from the perspective of an SPD member, to get rid of them and seek a new start.
One lesson from the UK referendum is that the outcome was fundamentally uncertain. The notion that the Brexit vote was inevitable — or that a second Brexit vote would necessarily result in this or that outcome — is nonsense. The uncertainty is fundamental.
In Germany there are no published opinion polls of SPD members. I expect that the SPD’s executive has run private polls, and last week’s extraordinary events would suggest that those were not looking good. This accords with anecdotal evidence I have heard. I am not sure whether Mr Schulz’s departure, while necessary, will be sufficient. In fact, many see him as a victim of a wider plot. Mr Schulz’s sister has complained about the “snake pit” of Berlin politics — something her brother underestimated a year ago when he moved back from Brussels, where he was president of the European Parliament.
The SPD referendum takes place from February 20 until March 2. Opponents of the grand coalition, led by Mr Kühnert, recruited 24,300 new members this year, most of whom are expected to vote against. New members make up about 5 per cent of the total and could tilt the vote. And here is another parallel with the UK. It was a campaign to recruit new members that got Jeremy Corbyn elected leader of the Labour party.
I cannot rule out that the SPD members will vote narrowly in favour of the coalition, but currently I do not think the party leadership has a majority, even with Mr Schulz out of the picture. Even if there is a narrow vote in favour, it is hard to see how this coalition, and Ms Merkel, can last a full term.
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