The election of two little-known leftwingers as leaders of Germany’s Social Democratic party brings closer the moment when the nation is likely to be governed by a coalition never seen in the Federal Republic’s 70-year history.
On present trends, the pivotal member of such a coalition will be the Greens, which has replaced the SPD as Germany’s dominant left-of-centre party. As a result, a less inflexible line on balanced budgets, a bolder approach to public investment and more imaginative ideas on European integration may be on the horizon in Berlin.
The timing of this long-anticipated change remains uncertain. It could happen as early as next year, depending on how much longer Chancellor Angela Merkel’s demoralised government clings to power and whether Germany holds snap elections.
But the crucial point is that change is coming. In fact, Germany is approaching a political transition that could be as significant as 1969, when the SPD led a government for the first time in the postwar era, and 1998, when the Greens first took national office.
For it is not only the era of Ms Merkel, chancellor since 2005, that is drawing to an end. So, too, is the era of “grand coalitions” uniting her Christian Democratic party with the SPD.
This partnership has provided three of Germany’s four governments during the Merkel era. But the third, which was cobbled together after the 2017 Bundestag elections, has proved to be the unhappiest of them all — for both parties.
The SPD leadership contest was won by Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken after what amounted to a grassroots leftist protest against the party establishment and its co-operation with the CDU.
It is the latest sign that the CDU-SPD grand coalition formula has reached the end of the road. For the CDU contains numerous conservative malcontents who, like their leftwing SPD counterparts, complain that such coalitions blur their party’s distinctive identity.
The SPD languishes in opinion polls with about 15 per cent support, vying for third place with the rightwing populist Alternative for Germany. It is a humiliating position for Europe’s most venerable social democratic party.
The stage is therefore set for change after the next Bundestag elections, due by September 2021. Should the new SPD leadership decide to pull the plug on Ms Merkel’s government, Germans could go to the polls earlier — in the first half of next year, or in early 2021.
A snap election in the second half of next year appears unlikely because that is when Germany will hold the EU’s six-month rotating presidency.
In any event, the fragmentation of Germany’s party political landscape over the past decade means that one of three varieties of coalition will most probably come to power after the next Bundestag polls.
Arguably, the most plausible is a coalition of the Christian Democrats and Greens. At present these are Germany’s two most popular parties. The Greens are not only the most internally disciplined party on the German left, but have a credible potential candidate for chancellor in Robert Habeck, their co-leader.
The second possibility is a broad left-of-centre coalition bringing together the Greens, SPD and radical left party Die Linke. Up to now, the first two parties have refused to contemplate sharing office at national level with Die Linke, owing to its roots in former communist East Germany and its hostility to Nato. But such a three-party coalition seems the only way that an authentically left-of-centre government can come to power in Germany.
A third possibility is a coalition of the CDU, Greens and liberal Free Democrats. But this option was explored to no avail after the 2017 elections.
The outcome was the third CDU-SPD grand coalition — a combination that has disappointed the parties themselves, a majority of voters and Germany’s EU allies.