Sigmar Gabriel is usually very adept at beating around the bush, but after Sunday's election result he decided to take a more direct tack. "We would have expected a little bit more," the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) said.
No, it was not a good outcome for the Social Democrats, and they know it. The party made a bit of a recovery compared to 2009, but talk of a resurgence is out of the question. The conservatives, consisting of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have rode off even further into the distance. To the chancellor and her party colleagues, the SPD looks tiny, a party left far behind.
The Social Democrats are facing some testing weeks. Angela Merkel has fallen just short of an absolute majority; she needs a partner to govern. The Greens, after their own debacle, are likely to have enough to worry about without testing a potential coalition option that is already internally highly controversial, so the chancellor will likely court the SPD. After four years, the Social Democrats could once again be in government.
But few in the party have much enthusiasm for a new alliance with Merkel. The gap between the conservatives and their closest competitior is sizeable. A CDU/SPD coalition would not be on a level playing field -- that at least is what the Social Democrats suspect. In the end, so the fears go, everything would pan out as it did in 2009. Or even worse. Back then, SPD politicians felt Merkel got the credit for anything positive that happened within the government, even if it was the Social Democrats' own work.
Accordingly, the party leadership are stamping down hard on the brakes when it comes to a possible alliance with the chancellor. "We have experience with the grand coalition, and it was not especially positive," said Hannelore Kraft, the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous state. "That is an issue which is very difficult in our party." Above all, they do not want to talk about it right now. "The ball is now in Merkel's court," SPD general secretary Andrea Nahles told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
But the topic is set to play a leading role in all of the SPD's groups and bodies. The party's executive committee will convene on Monday morning, the parliamentary group on Tuesday, and Friday will see a small party convention. The officials who want nothing to do with a grand coalition will express their opposition. "I cannot imagine that our core projects, such as the abolition of at-home child care subsidies, or plans to restrict private health insurance would be feasible in a grand coalition," said Sascha Vogt, leader of the youth wing of the SPD.
An Offer They Can't Refuse?
The only question is: Can the SPD really refuse? It's difficult. The possibility of a so-called Red-Red-Green coalition made up of the SPD, the Greens and the far-left Left Party has already been excluded, even if the spokeswoman of the SPD's left-wing faction, Hilde Mattheis, insists the "door to other parties" is still open. In the case of a stalemate, Merkel would probably emerge even stronger from another election . In addition, there are a few leading SPD members who have been dreaming of a ministerial post for a long time.
If the Social Democrats were able to negotiate control of six ministries, it wouldn't be a shabby result at all. From there, they could agitate politically. And it is likely the party will drive the price as high as possible before it agrees to join a coalition government with Merkel's conservatives. Dual citizenship for the country's millions of immigrants (dominated by Turks), a minimum wage, guaranteed minimum pensions -- a remake of the grand coalition would have to have a deep red coat of paint, as the unofficial slogan says.
The coming days will be especially difficult for Gabriel. He's the one who ultimately has to decide whether to enter talks with the CDU -- and if so, what demands to bring to the table. The SPD leader has not emerged from this election particularly strengthened. He has made changes to the policy agenda in an attempt to make the Left Party superfluous. This strategy has failed, that much is clear. Some Social Democrats have already begun to pin responsibility for the party's weak performance solely on Gabriel. The question of which course the party will take in the next few years will be decided in the coming weeks.
A debate over the SPD's leadership is unlikely, although it can't be excluded altogether. Peer Steinbrück , the party's candidate for chancellor, has warned against "reading the tea leaves" and "strategy debates." Ralf Stegner, the party's parliamentary group chairman, said: "There can be no quick fixes in political or personnel commitments."
It is also unclear what will become of Steinbrück. On Sunday he made the striking statement that he would "be ready to take on responsibility for the SPD in the future." The first speculation among Social Democrats as to whether he had his eyes on the chairman's role began immediately. Whatever he meant, many in the party would be happy to see him remain on board. "I can very well imagine that he will continue to play an active role in the SPD," said Johannes Kahrs, the spokesman of the pragmatic Seeheimer Kreis group within the party. "He led a terrific campaign," added Kahrs. "He has shown how important he is for us."