Crumbling Big-Tent Parties German Politics Enters Era of Instability

Germany's big-tent parties have ensured political stability for decades. But they are rapidly losing power and influence. The Social Democrats are witnessing an open rebellion against party leadership while many conservatives are beginning to doubt Merkel's abilities. By DER SPIEGEL Staff


Early Tuesday afternoon, a small group met for a closed-door meeting at the headquarters of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin. The meeting was supposed to be about a formality, but it was in fact about the very future of the party.

Martin Schulz, still the center-left party's chair at the time, was present, as were six of his deputies, the general secretary, the treasurers, Lower Saxony Governor Stephan Weil and, of course, Andrea Nahles, the party's parliamentary whip. The group wanted to commence the previously announced change in party leadership -- former chancellor candidate Schulz was to step down, with Nahles taking over as the provisional head of the SPD until her planned installation as chair at an upcoming party conference. The hope was to restore calm in the party.

But it didn't work. Resistance cropped up everywhere. SPD lawyers argued that it wasn't legal for Nahles to serve as the party's interim head. Emails from furious party members began flooding into SPD headquarters. On social media, members of the party began cursing the stubborn party establishment. And three state chapters opposed the plan outright.

It set off a wave of the kind seen often recently, an insurgency from below against those at the top, the party grassroots against its leadership.

As a result, the group gathered at SPD headquarters was troubled. But Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg and an influential SPD functionary, wanted to push the plan through nonetheless. Scholz does not like to go on the defensive and he believed that giving in to the protestations coming from below would be a sign of weakness. Party leaders, he said, needed to exert leadership. They couldn't allow their actions to be dictated by the party base.

Power Struggle

Nahles agreed. The pair was concerned that withdrawing their plan would merely encourage critics to take further action. It was, in other words, the birth of a power struggle between the SPD's party base and its leadership.

But there was plenty of opposition within the party's national executive committee as well. And ultimately, Nahles and Scholz backed down, proposing instead to make Scholz the provisional head the SPD first before later handing the reins to Nahles. The executive committee supported the move and Nahles was left to spin the solution to the media as proof that the party was leaving its strife behind.

In actuality, though, it was a defeat for Nahles. Yet again, she was caught entirely by surprise by the sentiment in a party that she believes to know so well.

The fact is that the party's grassroots are angry, and their fury is no longer exclusively focused on plans to join Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in yet another grand coalition. The upcoming party vote on that coalition agreement is in the process of transforming into a vote on the SPD's leadership and political culture. Party leaders in Berlin are at risk of losing control -- as though their link with the party base has been broken.

Western Democracies in Crisis

And this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to the SPD. The conservative Christian Democrats are also seeing the authority of their once all-powerful chancellor being eroded, with discontent and the urge for change growing in the party base.

Germany finds itself oscillating between a longing for stability and the desire for upheaval. Surveys show that support for both the CDU and the SPD has plunged, to the point that, were elections held today, it isn't even certain that a grand coalition would have a majority.

Support for the SPD and the conservatives is falling.

Support for the SPD and the conservatives is falling.

Suddenly, upheaval is everywhere. Within the SPD, everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, with a large number taking aim at acting Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. Above all, the party base is in open revolt against the leadership. Within the Christian Democrats, meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel's authority is melting away. The Merkel era is drawing to a close and the upheavals caused by her efforts to modernize her party are now breaking into the open.

The country is slipping into a crisis and Germany, the bastion of stability in Europe, is becoming politically unstable. And every month the country continues to be run by a provisional government is another month that Germany doesn't have a voice in Europe or the world.

This is by no means purely a domestic development. The party system is currently being turn upside down across Western democracies. Owing to Germany's prosperity and the sedative power of its chancellor, it long appeared that Merkel had been spared by the international development. But the torturous wrangling to create a new government has now dashed that hope.

In France, the two parties that once dominated the country now hold only just over a quarter of the seats in the national parliament. In Italy, the Five Star Movement, which doesn't seem to stand for much other than the desire for change and its loathing of the status quo and is led by a former TV comedian, appears to have strong chances of winning the election there in March.

A Radical Loss of Support

In Germany, the old establishment parties are also struggling to maintain political stability. Combined support for the SPD and the conservatives has dropped from over 90 percent at the beginning of the 1970s to just 49 percent today. Their decline, which had previously been a slow and creeping process, has rapidly accelerated in recent months.

The party system in Germany is splintering, with seven parties now represented in national parliament. When it is no longer possible to form governments with two or three parties, it will necessarily become increasingly difficult to build stable governments. Italy already provides an example of what that can mean. The country is constantly swapping out its prime minister and holding snap elections. Italy has had almost 30 prime ministers and a total of 61 cabinets since 1946. In the same period, Germany has been governed by eight chancellors.

At this point, the crisis has become an existential one for the SPD. Even if the party becomes part of the next government, that won't guarantee that the bleeding will stop -- that much has been demonstrated by developments in other European countries. The party leadership has lost its authority and many state chapters are in chaos -- including the party's most important chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Party discipline is also waning, with SPD parliamentarians increasingly defying leadership. The youth wing of the Social Democrats, the Jusos, have even been making headlines in the international press with their open rebellion against the party's plan to join Merkel's government. And three obscure local politicians have announced that they will fight against Nahles' installation as party boss.

Manuela Schwesig, the party's deputy chair, has described the situation as "days of chaos." A member of the national executive committed said: "It's a nightmare."

Within the Christian Democrats, the process began later and has been less radical. Nevertheless, with the end of Merkel's calming dominance in the party, the battle over the CDU's future direction is growing ever louder. The sense is palpable all across the party that it is facing questions about its own future. Feb. 7, 2018, the day that the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats reached an agreement to go into government together again, could prove to be a historical turning point, as the "end of the CDU as a big-tent party," warns Carsten Linnemann, the head of the party's wing representing the powerful lobby of small- to mid-sized businesses.

That goes a long way toward explaining the intensity with which the debate is currently being carried out within the CDU. When a politician like Paul Ziemiak, the head of the party's youth wing, calls for the party's renewal, it generally has to do with the divvying up of political appointments. Really, though, it's the question of whether the CDU can maintain its status as a big-tent party.

Massive Distrust

The SPD, meanwhile, has become a cautionary tale. "There is now considerable distrust by society against the people at the top," says CDU deputy head Ralf Stegner. "Ongoing social transformations are being mirrored within the major national parties," he warns. "That's why we need a new sensitivity and we need to find the right balance between asserting leadership and more seriously taking the party base into consideration."

The distrust and displeasure toward the parties' leadership is massive. The worst, argues Edgar Franke, a member of parliament with the conservative wing of the SPD, are all the canned statements coming out of party headquarters. "The people want politicians with rough edges and flaws. They don't want robots." Meanwhile, former Munich Mayor Christian Ude asks, "Does the SPD executive really want to test its members' threshold for pain?"

The party base is retaliating against the hermetic leadership style at the top of the party and against the backroom deals. Party members want transparency and a voice. The membership in the two parties is also more diverse than it was in the past. Among the tens of thousands of new members the SPD registered in the last 12 months, there are many, many young people who want to see a totally different political culture emerge. They grew up in in a world in which the new media sparks new voices within a matter of hours and in which authorities have been weakened because fewer people are listening to them.

It's no longer an issue of political discontent. On the contrary, voter turnout is increasing again and people are taking an interest in politics in Germany. The problem is that trust in the parties is shrinking.

Under the German constitution, the political parties are there to help form political policies that express the will of the people. That's their job, but it's obvious that fewer and fewer people have the impression that they are fulfilling that mandate.

Identity Loss

Members of both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats are deeply unnerved. The long journey to the political center made by both parties has robbed them of their respective leftist and conservative identities. They lack unique traits, differences in political views and reasons to debate each other. Many members now want to finally get back to a point where they actually know what it is their party stands for. They long for clarity and determination.

The leaders of these parties in Berlin are sapped and exhausted. Many members are craving a reboot. The parties are on the cusp of a generational shift, with the departure of older politicians. The problem is that the people who are now slated to take over the parties don't necessarily embody that fresh start. Andrea Nahles, although 16 years younger than Merkel, has been politically active for just as long as the chancellor. At the time Merkel joined the Democratic Awakening party in then-East Germany in 1989, Nahles was founding a local chapter of the SPD in Weiler, the village where she grew up.

Discord is driving a wedge through both parties. For the SPD, regardless how the members vote on the resolution on whether to join a grand coalition, it will be a nearly impossible task to reconcile the opponents and proponents of governing with Merkel. And within the Christian Democrats, the conservatives who have aligned with rising party star Jens Spahn and the party modernizers surrounding Merkel are drifting ever further apart.


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