Is Angela Merkel’s coalition about to collapse?

A leadership crisis in the Social Democratic Party is likely to trigger new elections – and the departure of Merkel.

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For a party that preaches the gospel of solidarity, comradery is in short supply in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). On Sunday 2 June, the then party leader Andrea Nahles succumbed to internal pressures (described by insiders as “bullying”) and resigned. Her decision followed dismal results in the European elections, plummeting from 27.3 per cent to 15.8 per cent of the vote, and defeat in the former SPD stronghold of Bremen.

Nahles’ resignation has thrown the SPD into disarray, but more seriously it threatens the survival of the governing grand coalition between the SPD, Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and her right-wing Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The coalition has been fragile since it was formed last year. In the wake of the 2017 federal elections, the CDU/CSU first attempted a coalition with the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), but negotiations broke down at the eleventh hour and the SPD became the second-choice partner in a coalition that is loathed by many of its core voters and its MPs.

The SPD has served as junior partner to the CDU/CSU in three of four Merkel’s cabinets since 2005.  While it has successfully pushed for far-reaching reforms, including the introduction of a minimum wage, Merkel’s astute poaching of SPD policies meant that voters did not credit the SPD. The party’s distinct profile was eroded, and in 2017 it received the worst result in its long history at the federal elections. The then party leader, Martin Schulz, announced that there would be no way for the SPD to join yet another coalition.

As it turned out, he was wrong. In the name of political stability and at the behest of the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier – himself an SPD grandee – the party U-turned. Proponents of the grand coalition, notably Andrea Nahles, argued that it would be irresponsible not to govern, and that political renewal would be possible within the grand coalition. But the SPD’s downfall in popularity has continued unabated, and critics of the grand coalition, such as the outspoken leader of the SPD’s youth wing, Kevin Kühnert, have grown more vocal.

The SPD leadership election could break the grand coalition and lead to new federal elections. The procedure to elect a new SPD leader is not predetermined, but there is increasing appetite for allowing the membership to decide. If this happens, the party base is likely to break from the CDU and pursue instead a complete programmatic renewal, outside the constraints of governing as junior partner. A continuity candidate, arguing for the continuation of the grand coalition, may not stand a chance.

If the SPD were to withdraw from the coalition, the CDU/CSU has two options to avoid snap elections, at which it would also be likely to receive a beating. First, it could try to revive talks with the Greens and the FDP. But success is unlikely. The Greens recently polled at more than double the votes they received in 2017, and would want to capitalise on this at the ballot box. Or the CDU/CSU coalition could decide to limp on alone, as a minority government, seeking majorities on an ad-hoc basis. This is unprecedented in Germany, and it would not chime with the country’s stability-seeking political culture.

Snap elections are therefore likely to happen this winter. They will herald a new era in German politics because they will be the first elections for fourteen years that will not be fought – and won – by Merkel.

What, then, would new federal elections bring? As elsewhere in Europe, the party landscape in Germany is changing rapidly, with mainstream parties losing support and smaller parties with unequivocal stances on critical contemporary questions about climate change, immigration, or European integration, from greens to the far right, gaining ground. At the European elections, climate change was the single most important issue for German voters. The AfD, dogged by internal strife over illegal donations, lost ground, from its performance in the 2017 federal election, but it is too early to say whether the AfD has peaked– regional elections in its stronghold in eastern Germany, which will take place this autumn, will be more telling.

With the CDU in chaos and the question of who will succeed Merkel obscuring other issues, it seems likely that snap elections will result in a new government formed by the CDU/CSU and the Greens, a feeble SPD, and several smaller parties represented in the Bundestag. This may revitalise political debate, which has been stifled under the weight of successive grand coalitions. But it may also be bad news for Europe. German politics may be enlivened by the departure of Merkel, but it will also become yet more inward-looking, and the EU, in a time of international volatility, will lose a guiding hand.

Leonard Schuette is an EU politics expert at Requat Advisory Ltd. He was previously a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER).