Germany’s SPD may have signed its death warrant

Another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats could condemn Germany’s Social Democrats to inexorable decline. 

NS

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A spectre is haunting Europe’s social democrats: the spectre of Pasokification. The term was coined in reference to Greece’s once hegemonic Pasok, which was reduced from 160 seats in 2009 (making it the largest party) to just 13 in 2015 (putting it in sixth place).

In the years since, other centre-left outfits have contracted this possibly terminal disease. In France, the incumbent Socialist Party polled a mere 6.4 per cent in the 2017 presidential election - its worst-ever result - and won just 30 seats in the National Assembly (down from 280). In the Netherlands, the Dutch Labour Party was reduced to 5.7 per cent in the same year (a fifth of its previous vote). And in Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the grandfather of the European centre-left, achieved a new nadir in last September’s election, winning just 20.5 per cent of the vote and 153 seats.

These electoral humblings share common features: the punishment of social democrats for imposing or enabling austerity and privatisation; the defection of socially conservative voters to far-right nationalist parties (such as Alternative for Germany) ; and the loss of supporters to left-wing alternatives (Greece’s Syriza, France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Germany’s Left Party and the Dutch Socialist Party).

A poll earlier this week put the SPD on just 17 per cent, 13 points behind Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) and just two ahead of the far-right AfD.

In spite of this, the Social Democrat leadership this week agreed a new “grand coalition” (or “GroKo”) deal with Merkel. Such is the German Chancellor’s weakness (after the longest period without a government since the Second World War) that she was forced to award the SPD the posts of finance minister and foreign minister. But Merkel’s policy concessions were more modest: tougher controls on temporary work contracts (firms with fewer than 250 staff will only be to hire five workers on these terms) and minor reform of the private health system (an SPD demand to abolish private insurance was rejected).

At first sight, then, the SPD appears to have signed an electoral death warrant. Rather then renewing itself in opposition, it has chosen to again prop up the Christian Democrats. The Left Party and the Alternative for Germany will be further empowered to position themselves as anti-establishment outsiders.

One can cite Merkel herself on this point. In 2010, when David Cameron inquired as to the merits of coalitions, she replied: “The little party always gets smashed!” On both counts, Merkel was proved right. Germany’s Free Democrats (the CDU’s partner from 2009-13) and Britain’s Liberal Democrats were indeed smashed. 

The prospect of a similar fate for the SPD may yet persuade its 464,000 members to veto the deal later this month. The party’s youth wing, the Young Socialists, are running a spirited campaign against another grand coalition.

Until the 2017 general election, Britain’s own Labour Party was displaying symptoms of Pasokification. Having won just 30.4 per cent of the vote in 2015 (its third-worst share since 1923), it was marooned in the 20s. But by achieving the largest increase in the party’s vote since 1945 and its highest share (40.0 per cent) since 2001, Corbyn reversed inexorable decline.

In other major European states, the left’s resurgence has occurred outside of traditional social democratic parties. In the UK, by contrast, Corbyn led an internal revolution within one. Whether any other leader could have averted Pasokification is a subject for Corbyn's parliamentary opponents to ponder.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.