Germany has been plunged into political uncertainty after the Social Democratic party elected a new leftwing leadership team over the weekend that has threatened to lead its party out of its coalition with Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc.
In a result that shook the Berlin political establishment, the party announced on Saturday the election of co-leaders Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken who have pushed for a renegotiation of the alliance between Social Democrats and Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats that has governed Germany for 10 of the past 14 years.
That alliance has faced growing criticism from rank and file SPD members alarmed at the party’s recent electoral decline. Speaking on German television after the vote, Ms Esken described the grand coalition as “rubbish” for the country’s democracy.
She reiterated her call for a renegotiation of the 2018 coalition agreement — a demand that has so far been firmly rejected by the chancellor’s party.
Among other things, Ms Esken called for a sharp rise in spending on infrastructure, tougher climate change laws and a big stimulus package to help the German economy through its current weak patch.
However, she stopped short of demanding an immediate SPD withdrawal from the coalition, saying it was up to delegates at this week’s party congress in Berlin to decide the fate of the government. Looking ahead to the meeting, Ms Esken seemed keen to damp expectations of a sudden rupture, saying the new party leadership would not “go it alone”.
The victory of Ms Esken and Mr Walter-Borjans offered a clear repudiation of the party establishment, which had backed the centrist candidacy of finance minister Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz.
Mr Scholz and Ms Geywitz, a regional politician from eastern Germany, had made clear throughout the campaign that they wanted to preserve the grand coalition. That stance is shared by most SPD members of parliament and the party establishment.
However, support for the centrist candidates slid amid a sharp deterioration from recent polling results that some analysts believe reflects the blurring of the SPD’s profile Polls suggest the SPD would win just 14 per cent of the vote if an election was held now.
Christian Democrats insisted on Sunday that there would be no renegotiation of the coalition agreement. “We can’t give up all our principles just to keep the grand coalition on the road,” said Detlef Seif, a CDU MP. “Everyone in the CDU agrees that we have to sharpen our profile as a party, after 14 years in power, and we can’t do that if we keep making concessions to the SPD.”
Saskia Esken, 58, hails from the south-western state of Baden-Württemberg, where the SPD has traditionally recorded some of its weakest results. She became a member of the federal parliament in 2013, specialising in digital issues. Party colleagues describe her as a political campaigner at heart, a reputation that Ms Esken seemed happy to confirm in the closing stages of the leadership race. She launched a series of outspoken attacks on her chief rival Olaf Scholz, suggesting on one occasion that the German finance minister was a poor negotiator and not a “staunch social democrat”.
Some Christian Democrats privately relish the prospect of the SPD quitting the coalition, which would allow the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, to rule alone as a minority government.
That would be unprecedented for postwar Germany, and Ms Merkel has repeatedly ruled out such an option. But it does have its attractions. The Bundestag on Friday passed the 2020 budget, and there are few outstanding pieces of legislation that require passage in this parliament.
Norbert Walter-Borjans, 67, is the more prominent and experienced of the two new SPD leaders. An economist by training, he served as regional finance minister in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s biggest federal state, from 2010 to 2017. It was during that time that he made the high-profile decision to acquire leaked lists of German tax evaders who had parked their money in Switzerland, eventually allowing German tax authorities to reclaim billions of euros. Known as “Nowabo”, Mr Walter-Borjans has a low-key, conciliatory style that has at times looked at odds with the more combative approach of his co-candidate.
“A minority government is no longer such a scary prospect,” said CDU MP Christoph Ploss. “So if the SPD threatens to leave, we shouldn’t try and stop them. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be blackmailed.”
Another possibility would be for Ms Merkel to try to form a new coalition with the support of the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, both of which are currently in opposition.
A third option would be for the chancellor to call a snap election, though officials in Berlin worry that this could leave Germany without clear leadership at a particularly sensitive time for European politics. Berlin is due to take over the rotating EU presidency in the second half of next year.
Both SPD and CDU politicians cautioned on Sunday that it was far from clear how quickly — if at all — the government coalition would unravel.
“At least some internal critics of the grand coalition will have been pacified by the result on Saturday,” said Jens Zimmermann, an SPD member of parliament. “That gives the new leaders more margin of manoeuvre. Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken can say: ‘We want to leave the coalition but we can’t do it right now.’ And they will be believed.”
Johannes Kahrs, another SPD MP and a prominent supporter of Mr Scholz’s candidacy, struck a similar note: “There is deep discontent inside the party with the grand coalition. People think that the SPD has lost its recognisable character, and they are tired of making compromises. I understand that. But I think we are here to improve people’s lives and you can’t do that when you are in opposition.”
For Mr Scholz — the vice-chancellor, finance minister and arguably the most high-profile leader the party has — the vote came as a particularly harsh blow.
Conscious of his lack of appeal with parts of the SPD base, he had campaigned hard in recent months, often dashing from cabinet meetings in Berlin and ministerial gatherings in Brussels to SPD events in remote parts of Germany.
In the closing stages of the campaign, he also tried to shed his reputation as an uncharismatic technocrat, appearing notably more animated and combative than usual. Had his team won on Saturday, he would likely have emerged as the party’s lead candidate in the next general election, giving him a run at the chancellorship in 2021.
Andrea Römmele, a professor of politics at the Hertie School of Government in Berlin, said the leadership contest was in any case unlikely to revive the party’s fortunes in the near term. “None of the four candidates stood for renewal, or for the new style of politics that is embodied by the Green party. I would be surprised if the SPD’s poll ratings rebound on the back of this,” she said.