Lower Expectations SPD Secretly Hopes for Coalition Under Merkel
The Social Democrats are realizing that the best they can hope for is a grand coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel after the Sept. 22 election. Publicly, they're sticking to their goal of a government with the Greens. But the Greens are looking too weak.
Listening to leading Social Democrats after Sunday's Bavarian election, one could be forgiven for imagining that they had won a respectable victory. Chancellor Candidate Peer Steinbrück said he had gained a "good portion of confidence" from the vote, and General Secretary Andrea Nahles said in every media interview she gave that it had been a "good result."
This confidence is surprising. The SPD won less than 21 percent, a modest result for a party that aims to oust Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Sept. 22 election. In fact, this is the first time since 2010 that the SPD has failed to be part of a government following a state election. But there are a few positive points in Bavaria that the Social Democrats have been stressing:
The miserable performance of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), Merkel's junior coalition partner, in Bavaria, where they slumped to 3.3 percent, far short of the five percent needed for parliamentary representation. The SPD will relish emphasizing the FDP's weakness in the remaining days of the campaign.
The fact that the SPD managed to improve its result by two points in Bavaria against the resurgent Christian Social Union, led by popular governor Horst Seehofer.
The increased voter turnout, which tends to benefit the SPD.
SPD Still Officially Aiming for Center-Left Alliance
The final point in particular has triggered hopes in the SPD's campaign headquarters that the party could achieve a decent result after all on Sunday. The SPD will spend the coming days mobilizing its supporters. Officially at least, it's sticking to its target of forming the next government with the Greens. "We stand for one coalition: for Red-Green," said SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, referring to the two parties' colors. "If the FDP doesn't make it into parliament there's a big chance of that." But in truth, leading SPD members know that the best they can hope for is another "grand coalition" -- as junior partner to Merkel's conservatives, a repeat of the power-sharing alliance with which she governed from 2005 to 2009. The Bavarian election result makes this outcome seem even more likely.
Bavaria confirmed a trend that that has been seen for some time in nationwide polls. The SPD has managed to inch up a couple of points in opinion polls over the last week. The Emnid polling institute had it at 26 percent in a poll published on Sunday, but that's still 13 percentage points short of Merkel's conservatives. Meanwhile, the Greens are getting weaker. That's not conducive to a governing coalition between the two parties, but the SPD can live with the trend. The stronger it gets, the easier it will be for the SPD to form a grand coalition with the conservatives, and the more scope it will have to push through its policies as part of a new government.
Sentiment among the Greens was predictably downcast after the Bavarian result. They had hoped for double digits but instead fell almost a point to just 8.6 percent. They are scoring below 10 percent in national polls -- a marked decline from their dream poll results of 18 months ago when they were at well over 20 percent -- and even close to 30 percent according to some. The party has been hit by tax hike plans and by its call for a "Veggie Day" -- a meat-free day in public canteens, which critics in other parties said made the Greens look like a nannyish, spoilsport party.
Greens leader Jürgen Trittin has promised to reverse the trend. "We've had headwind since we were founded," he said. "We can still turn things around."
But how? Trittin himself is now embroiled in controversy after it emerged on Monday that he had in 1981 backed a local Green party manifesto calling for sex between children and adults to be be decriminalized.
The party will spend this week focusing on its pledges to fight global warming, manage the transition to renewable energy and adapt government to modern trends in society. But the Greens know that their prospects of forming a coalition with the SPD are dwindling. They can no longer blame the SPD for that. It's their own fault.