Merkel's Test: Reluctant SPD to Extract High Price for Coalition
Despite Angela Merkel's landslide win, it could take months for Germany to form a coalition. She's only five seats short of a majority but the SPD, stung by its last foray into government with the chancellor, will extract a high price -- and may say no altogether.
The party is well and truly over for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Two days after her triumph, it's fast becoming clear that her quest for a stable coalition will test her famed mediating skills to the limit.
The world is watching closely how she fares -- the outcome of the talks will determine her government's all-important European policy.
Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, have insisted in recent days that their stance on the euro crisis, with a strong focus on reform and austerity and strict opposition to new debt, will remain intact. But they may have to soften their approach in order to form a government.
It was always clear that the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who want a bigger focus on stimulating growth in Europe, would be loathe to join her government in a "grand coalition." The last time they did that, during her first term between 2005 and 2009, Merkel got all the credit for their work and they promptly suffered their worst ever result in a federal election.
But the vigor with which some SPD leaders are now resisting an alliance has come as a surprise. It suggests that Merkel will need to make big concessions in terms of policies and cabinet posts -- bigger than the SPD's relatively modest number of parliamentary seats warrant -- to win them over. It also suggests there is a real possibility that her attempt to form a government may fail altogether.
This is the flipside of her historic election win. Merkel, at the peak of her popularity, led her conservatives to their best result since 1990 but she lured so many voters away from her current junior partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- an estimated 2.11 million -- that the FDP failed to reach the five-percent threshold needed for representation in parliament.
Some commentators are calling her the black widow of German politics.
SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel was candid about the risks of getting bitten. "The SPD isn't going to line up after Frau Merkel ruined her previous coalition partner," he told reporters on Monday after a gloomy meeting of his party's executive board. The SPD climbed just 2.7 points in the election to 25.7 percent and has just 192 seats against the CDU's 311 in the 630-seat parliament.
Regional SPD leaders are already making plain that they want their party to go into opposition.
"Ninety percent of my regional party association are against a grand coalition. It's not a disgrace for us to go into opposition," said Hannelore Kraft, the state governor of North Rhine-Westphalia who has been tipped as a possible future SPD leader and chancellor candidate.
"The SPD is prepared to hold talks with the conservatives of Chancellor Angela Merkel but the outcome is open. We won't enter a grand coalition with flags held high. We will focus on policies," Kraft told reporters.
The head of the SPD's regional parliamentary group in North Rhine-Westphalia, Norbert Römer, went further. "We're not aiming for a grand coalition and there won't be one in the end," he said.
Analysts said resistance to a grand coalition is greater than ever in the SPD.
"It's really astonishing how hard the SPD is trying to seal itself off this time," Thomas Jäger, a political scientist at Cologne University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Part of the reason, he said, is that the SPD has done well in recent state elections and that its regional barons are worried their electoral support will suffer if the SPD joins Merkel. "Opposition parties like the Greens or Left Party would find it relatively easy to siphon off voters," Jäger said.
'The SPD Will Have to Show Big Symbolic Results'
Another factor is Merkel's vastly increased political stature both at home and abroad, which will allow her to dominate any coalition government to a far greater extent than during her first term, when she was a newcomer to government and her conservatives had only 24 more seats than the SPD, said Jäger.
"The SPD will have to show big symbolic results in coalition talks," said Jäger. "I can imagine that the Finance Ministry would be hard fought over. Schäuble has a lot of respect in the CDU. I can't imagine the SPD would want to join a government containing such a strong minister."
European Parliament President Martin Schulz, an SPD member, told SPIEGEL that Merkel will have to change her European policy in a grand coalition. He said Merkel would have to take real action against high youth unemployment in crisis-hit nations. Radical austerity would have to end. "Merkel will not be able to continue to pursue this policy with the SPD," Schulz said. "After giving lip service to social issues, Merkel must now finally take action."
Everything is on hold until Friday, when the SPD will discuss how to proceed at a party conference in Berlin attended by some 200 grass-roots delegates from across Germany and the 35-member leadership board.
Talks Could Last Till Christmas
If they give the green light, a period of cautious, probing talks will start, frequently interrupted for consultation with party representatives. It will be slow going. "I would be surprised if they finish much before Christmas," Bernhard Wessels, an analyst at Berlin's Free University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Wessels doubts that the CDU would give up the Finance Ministry though.
If talks with the SPD fail, what are Merkel's options? She could seek an alliance with the Greens, but Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, a powerful conservative ally, on Tuesday ruled out even talking to them. Besides, the Greens are in turmoil after Sunday's poor showing and their leadership has resigned en masse -- not the best pre-condition for the stable parliamentary majority Merkel wants.
The other option is a new election. But neither of the big parties wants that. It could lift the populist, anti-euro Alternative for Germany into parliament -- it got very close to the five-percent threshold on Sunday -- and lead to an even weaker result for the SPD.
Despite all its misgivings, the SPD will probably join Merkel in the end because public pressure is likely to mount as the weeks drag on.
"Former SPD grandees will start to appeal to the party's responsibility to the country," said Jäger. "The longer the talks go on, the greater the public pressure will be on the SPD to get on with it and find an agreement."
Schäuble got the ball rolling on Tuesday. "The state comes first, then the party," he growled.
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