Germany Is Run by a Coalition of the Desperate
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Sunday marked another important stage in the implosion of Germany’s two-party system. But the abrupt resignation of Andrea Nahles as leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) probably won’t spell an immediate end to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, in which the SPD is the junior partner.
On Sunday, Nahles gave up her posts as party and parliamentary group leader and said she’d also resign her parliament seat. She explained this abrupt withdrawal from politics by saying she lacked sufficient support after a dismal performance in last month’s European Parliament election. It was the first post-World War II nationwide ballot in which the SPD came third, garnering just 15.8% of the vote, and came after the party’s first-ever loss of a state election in Bremen. But it’s unclear who among available candidates might have the support Nahles lacked.
The most obvious candidate, Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who held the leadership job provisionally before Nahles took over, has made it clear he doesn’t want it. So have party elders Martin Schulz, the failed chancellor candidate in 2017, and former Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who is planning to retire from politics when the current electoral cycle ends. It’s not clear if any of the SPD’s several state prime ministers wants the responsibility that comes with the party’s seemingly unstoppable nationwide meltdown – and if any of the lesser-known functionaries would have what it takes to make a new beginning. Some form of collective leadership is a likely outcome.
The SPD has been losing more than popularity and elections. For decades, its membership also has been in decline, shrinking by about 54% between 1990 and 2018, the biggest loss among German parties. The remaining members are an aging group: 63% of them are older than 51, and only 8% are younger than 30. In a Germany with fewer social problems than ever before, old, moderate notions of social justice have faded, and younger people are more interested in saving the planet than in a higher minimum wage or more job stability.
The SPD is not the only party failing to appeal to younger Germans. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has lost 47% of its membership since 1990, and 70% of its card-carrying members are older than 51. Merkel’s bold moves to hijack the environmental agenda – big plans to reduce Germany’s dependence on fossil fuels and her 2011 decision to phase out nuclear power – made the Greens almost irrelevant for a while. But Germany is still missing its climate goals under Merkel, and the Green threat is turning out to be bigger for the CDU than the nationalist one, which Merkel’s chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has chosen to take on. The Greens added about 10,000 members in 2018 – the biggest jump ever. The nationalist Alternative for Germany only added about 1,000.
A Forsa poll published at the weekend showed the Greens in first place nationwide for the first time in post-war history, ahead of the CDU; it gave the SPD just 12% support.
If the Greens manage to hold on to their current support, driven largely by Germans’ perception of the climate emergency, and above all the need to phase out coal-fired power plants faster than the current government would do it (the current end date for the process is 2038), the German two-party system is essentially dead. The SPD is the principal victim because the Greens share its other policy ideas, such as adequate worker protections and support for immigration. The CDU, at least, has a conservative base to hold on to; the SPD doesn’t as labor unions weaken.
Straight-talking Nahles, who was universally respected not just in the SPD but by the leaders of other mainstream parties, didn’t fail because she was a bad party leader. Rather, the challenges to the SPD have become so overwhelming that not even Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt, the legendary SPD chancellors, would have been able to achieve a quick turnaround.
The electoral successes of center-left parties in southern Europe – especially in Portugal and, more recently, Spain – have proved that European Social Democrats aren’t doomed. The left will perform well, if not win, in the next Greek election, too. But in all these countries, the center-left can make a powerful case for strengthening the social safety net after years of austerity. In wealthier, more stable Germany, the SPD either has to wait for the next economic crisis to make it relevant again or to reinvent itself in ways its leadership hasn’t even discussed yet.
In the meantime, the SPD’s implosion doesn’t necessarily spell and end to Germany’s shaky ruling. Neither main party would do well in an early election, and both would merely be thwarted in their policy goals for the current legislative period.
CDU leaders have made it clear they want to preserve the coalition: If the SPD pulls out, Merkel will have to conduct difficult talks with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (the latter have made clear they want her to step down as a condition of participating in a coalition government). The other option, a minority government, is even worse: It’s not part of the German political tradition, and Merkel has made it clear she doesn’t want to try it.
The discussion in the SPD is more contentious; some argue the party must become more radical and rebuild itself in opposition. But, it’s unclear what can be gained by going down that path; it makes at least as much sense – and more to the party leaders – to try to regroup while in government if it can find a strong successor, or a group of successors, to Nahles.
The current Merkel government is a coalition of the desperate: Its participants can only lose by going to a snap election, and they have as little as two years to think of something new and exciting to offer voters. For both, an election this year can only be a distraction, and another painful defeat is not exactly what they need for their base to recover some optimism. That binds the two parties together stronger than any ideological glue – and keeps Merkel in power, at least for now.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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