Merkel Under Pressure: Could the SPD Really Say No to a Grand Coalition?

By and

Germany's ruling coalition of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the FDP is under increasing pressure as the euro chaos continues. Some in the chancellor's party are now contemplating a return to the grand coalition with the Social Democrats. The SPD aren't keen, but could they say no?

Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union with her former finance minister Peer Steinbrück of the center-left Social Democrats Zoom
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Chancellor Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democratic Union with her former finance minister Peer Steinbrück of the center-left Social Democrats

Things were better back in the good old days. At least, they were if you listen to Volker Kauder of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, the head of the Christian Democrats' block in the German parliament, the Bundestag, praised the party's so-called grand coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), which governed Germany between 2005 and 2009.

It was "remarkable," he said, that Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Peer Steinbrück, her SPD finance minister in that cabinet, managed to overcome the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 with a government comprised of two parties who have historically been archrivals in national politics.

But today? There are only hassles with the CDU's current coalition partner, the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- with Merkel and FDP Chairman and Vice Chancellor Philipp Rösler failing to see eye to eye in recent weeks. Angela Merkel lays down the law, Rösler chooses to ignore it. It is exasperating. Things aren't a whole lot better with the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is likewise part of the government and shares a skeptical view of euro bailout efforts.

Kauder is hoping that "for once the coalition can work in peace for a year." Just the way it used to be back in the day.

Kauder's words are significant. He is not the only one in the CDU/CSU, also known as the Union in parliament, who has a longing for an ordered relationship on his mind. And as this yearning grows, the dwindling hope that the alliance with the liberal FDP could eventually come good diminishes even further. In public, Christian Democrat figures are full of brave talk about the situation, but behind closed doors they are no longer ruling out a breakdown in the current coalition. And in the same breath, they speak of one alternative above all: A return to a grand coalition.

'Great Crises are Times for Grand Coalitions'

And why not? It would be appropriate for Europe's largest economy to demonstrate how a government can be coherent and effective amid the debt crisis. It would certainly not be the worst option, that much is clear; the CDU and the SPD proved between 2005 and 2009 that they can face difficult situations together. "Great crises are times for grand coalitions," said Saxony-Anhalt governor and CDU executive committee member Reiner Haseloff. His state government consists of a coalition which includes the Social Democrats, and he is full of praise for the former finance minister Steinbrück, who he says he could easily imagine as the vice chancellor.

The only problem with the idea of a grand coalition is that the SPD doesn't want it -- at least not yet. Amongst their supporters, there is no one who could imagine the spontaneous rebirth of a grand coalition which was so unloved among their own ranks. Pretty much all the top Social Democrats have, as a precaution, ruled out the scenario of moving across the chamber from the opposition benches to those of the government.

Steinbrück himself is also a hindrance to the idea. Regardless of his relationship with Merkel, for him, a rescue alliance with the Christian Democrats is out of the question. "We're not dealing with a national crisis in which the SPD has to follow the principle of 'country first, party second'," he told SPIEGEL in an interview published this week. "If this government is facing bankruptcy, they should make themselves responsible to the votes of the citizens." In other words: We don't have to; certainly not without new elections.

From the perspective of the party's members, there is little to be said for once again allowing themselves to be roped in by Merkel. The SPD is only just beginning to recover from its collapse in support at the polls in the 2009 general election. If it were to become a junior partner in a Merkel-led government, the party's recent strong showing might quickly stall. It may be that a Christian Democrat-SPD government would make for stability and international reliability. But the concern at SPD headquarters in Berlin is that the political gains, in the end, could ultimately boost Merkel's party rather than their own -- as happened during the 2009 election. Thus, the prospect of winning the next election and entering into a coalition government with the Greens is much more attractive for the SPD.

Resisting the Siren Call

But it is also true that in an emergency, such arguments count for little; it would not be easy to resist the siren call from the Christian Democrats and to insist on a snap election. "New elections," writes the Süddeutsche Zeitung, "are not only a problem because the country, thanks to CDU-FDP failures, no longer has a valid electoral law. New elections are above all a political problem because Europe simply cannot afford, in France before a presidential vote and in Germany before a Bundestag vote, for governing to be simulated for weeks and months."

In other words, wanting to replace uncertain conditions with uncertain conditions in times of crisis could backfire. The Social Democrats would probably be quickly confronted with the accusation that they were making a bid for power and disregarding their political responsibilities, not to mention the rescue of Europe as a whole.

This risk in turn leads on to an intriguing mind game being played out in the minds of many SPD supporters. If the current government collapses and Merkel asks the SPD for help, the Social Democrats would not flat out refuse. Instead, they would insist on new elections, which the chancellor would have to call after losing a vote of confidence. The period between then and the election, a maximum of three months, would have to be bridged by a caretaker administration. During this time, the SPD could cooperate informally with the chancellor on European political issues and important votes. It would be a form of tolerating Merkel's minority caretaker government. But the cooperation would be temporary, and only on European affairs.

The CDU and CSU would gain little through such a euro coalition, apart from a certain degree of ability to act. As things stand, new elections would likely mean a loss of power for Merkel and the Union, even if they remained the largest single party: The FDP would suffer big losses; polls have suggested an SPD-Green coalition as the most likely for months.

It is probable that only a collapse in support for the Greens, currently polling around 20 percent, could save the Christian Democrats in an early election. If the Greens suffered, their suitability as a coalition partner would be called into question. And if the Greens were not a possibility, attention would once again fall on a grand coalition.

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