Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and Social Democratic party leader Martin Schulz at a meeting of the Bundestag in Berlin, Germany © Reuters
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Norbert Randzio’s warning to his fellow Social Democrats could not be any starker. “Anyone who wants a grand coalition is digging a grave for the SPD,” he tells a meeting of party members in the northern German city of Hanover.
Mr Randzio, who joined the SPD almost six decades ago and describes himself as “red through and through”, says he has never wavered in his loyalty. But he worries that party leaders are on the verge of making a fatal mistake: renewing the centre-left’s unpopular alliance with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc in a so-called grand coalition.
His outburst earns scattered applause from the hundred or so party members present while others nod in agreement. Having watched the demise of left and centre-left parties in other European countries, they know how severely their own party was punished by voters after the last two grand coalitions with the Christian Democrats. And they know the SPD is already a shadow of its former self.
Not so long ago, the party had the support of 40 per cent of Germany’s electorate. At September’s general election, it won barely 20 per cent. Mr Randzio, 81, besieges his mostly younger audience: “We cannot do this again.”
We have a responsibility for this country. We have to look at how we can get our policies through. The best way to do that is by way of a formal coalition agreement
The anguish and fear expressed in Hanover are likely to be echoed in Berlin on Thursday, when the SPD meets for its first federal congress since the election debacle. Martin Schulz, party leader, had hoped to use the three-day convention to launch a process of renewal and renovation. He had promised to rebuild the party in opposition, replenish its resources and sharpen its ideological profile, hinting that he would steer the Social Democrats back to its leftwing roots.
Now, the crucial item on the agenda is a proposal to hold talks with the SPD’s conservative rival once again. To what end precisely has yet to be decided. But the pressure is rising both from outside the party and from senior SPD figures to end the political deadlock in Berlin, revive the grand coalition, and allow the formation of a stable government under Ms Merkel.
“We have a responsibility for this country,” says Johannes Kahrs, an influential SPD MP from Hamburg. The best way to revive the party’s fortunes, he argues, is to implement Social Democrat policies, from higher wages and better pensions to labour market reforms that would favour permanent over temporary job contracts. “We have to look at how we can get our policies through. In my view, the best way to do that is by way of a formal coalition agreement,” he says.
Others point out that the SPD has tried this approach before, only to pay a heavy price at the ballot box. The party managed to implement several longstanding demands in its recent grand coalition under Ms Merkel, most notably the introduction of a national minimum wage. But voters still abandoned the party in droves, including more than 400,000 who switched to the rightwing Alternative for Germany.
“These coalitions have left voters with the impression that the parties are not all that different. That has put wind in the sails of the rightwing populists,” says Ralf Stegner, SPD deputy leader. “We did good work in government but at the end of the day the party that benefits in a grand coalition is the one that is larger.”
The problem is that there is simply no obvious solution to the SPD’s dilemma. Barring a massive shift in voter sentiment, new elections will probably leave Germany’s party leaders with the same problems they face now. In the worst case, the SPD could find itself with even fewer seats in parliament, but facing the same pressure to support Ms Merkel.
A grand coalition, meanwhile, risks diluting the party’s profile even more, while strengthening the political fringes on the left and right. Senior Social Democrats point out that a coalition deal with Ms Merkel would leave the AfD as the main opposition party, with the right of first reply to government speeches and the power to appoint the chair of the parliamentary budget committee.
“My impression is that our members want neither a grand coalition nor new elections,” says Mr Stegner. “That makes the situation very complicated.”
A third option, a Merkel-led minority government that would rely on the SPD for certain votes, also has its drawbacks. It would deprive the SPD of a voice in government but would tie the party’s fate to Ms Merkel all the same. Nor would it deliver the kind of political stability that SPD leaders claim to be concerned about.
Perhaps ironically, the one glimmer of hope for the party comes from Ms Merkel, author of so much recent Social Democrat misfortune. She, too, has been weakened by the political upheaval. Younger rivals are jostling for her position, and few believe she will last a full four-year term.
The SPD candidate at the next election is likely to face a different rival — more rightwing than Ms Merkel, and almost certainly less attractive to centre-left voters than the current chancellor.
That, however, remains a distant hope at best. For now, the SPD is a party drained of optimism, fearful of the decision that lies ahead and alarmed at the prospect of facing the voter again anytime soon.
As the Hanover meeting draws to a close, a young man at the back of the room raises his hand. He has a simple question for the local party chiefs sitting at the front: “How long can we go on doing this if we keep on losing votes?”
This post originally appeared on Financial Times