Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s parliamentary group leader, in a heated discussion with party members on Sunday in Kamen, Germany.


BERLIN—Germany’s political future is staked on a ballot among the fractious rank-and-file of a once-mighty party that is still reeling months after its worst electoral showing since World War II.

Some 460,000 members of the ailing Social Democratic Party will decide by the end of next week whether to renew its unloved coalition with the conservative Christian Democratic Union of Chancellor

Angela Merkel

or go into opposition, a choice that would push Europe’s largest economy into uncharted political territory.

Six months after an inconclusive general election that has yet to produce a stable government, the European Union’s pre-eminent member and longtime anchor of political stability has stumbled into the kind of chronic uncertainty long associated with smaller members of the bloc.

That shakiness, unprecedented in the country’s modern history, is a result of an accelerating fragmentation of the political center that could have detrimental impact on much-awaited domestic reforms and the overall governance of the EU.

German Government Hinges on Party Tally

It has taken hold despite Germany’s economic prowess, which long insulated it from the surge of outsider movements that have disrupted the establishment across the West.

“From an Italian point of view, we are concerned,” said Wolf Piccoli, an Italian economist and political analyst. “If investors see instability in core Europe, they will worry about weaker links such as Italy.”

Germany’s apparent immunity to nationalist challenges ended last September when a far-right antiestablishment party, the Alternative for Germany or AfD, entered parliament for the first time on the back of mounting popular unease after the arrival of more than one million refugees since 2015.

With the vote yielding a hung parliament, Germany joined the growing club of European nations struggling to establish functional governments as support for traditional parties erodes, forcing them into increasingly unwieldy multiparty alliances.

Kevin Kühnert, right, the leader of the youth wing of the SPD, and deputy party leader Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, arriving for a discussion of a possible coalition last week in Recklinghausen, Germany.
Kevin Kühnert, right, the leader of the youth wing of the SPD, and deputy party leader Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, arriving for a discussion of a possible coalition last week in Recklinghausen, Germany.


“What we are experiencing here is part of a wave of social upheaval rolling across the Western world: in the U.K., in the U.S., and now in Germany,” said

Norbert Röttgen,

a senior CDU lawmaker and former minister in Ms. Merkel’s government.

After her efforts to form a three-way coalition of conservatives, free-marketeers and environmentalists collapsed in October, Ms. Merkel was forced to turn back to her partner in her last government. The reluctant SPD, tempted by the prospect of a rejuvenating spell in opposition after losing half its voters in the past 15 years, agreed to talk only if its members had a final say in approving the pact.

With the alliance sealed by party leaders earlier this month, the members have until March 2 to decide whether the grand coalition that has governed Germany for the last four years gets a new lease on life. If most think it shouldn’t, the vote would send the country barreling toward one of two unstable outcomes: snap elections or a deliberate minority government, which would be a postwar first.

The Bild tabloid registered a dog, Lima, as a new SPD member eligible to vote, in a bid to show lax controls over a crucial rank-and-file vote.
The Bild tabloid registered a dog, Lima, as a new SPD member eligible to vote, in a bid to show lax controls over a crucial rank-and-file vote.

Peter Müller/BILD

Exposing the chaotic incongruity of the situation, the mass-circulation newspaper Bild registered a dog called Lima as a new SPD member simply by filling out an online form. Unwitting party officials promptly sent Lima a ballot, along with messages from party grandees welcoming the canine newcomer.

While SPD members have been asked to endorsed coalitions in the past, opposition to the deal is rife in the party, making this particular ballot a cliffhanger. Opponents say entering another alliance with Ms. Merkel’s conservatives would merely drive away more voters.

“The way the SPD is at the moment, it doesn’t have much of a future,” said

Kevin Kühnert,

the 28-year-old head of the SPD youth wing and one of the leading voices in the anti-coalition campaign told journalists this week.

Contributing to the trepidation, polls suggest that support for the SPD has continued to collapse after it scored a historical low of 20.5% at the election. An INSA poll for the Bild daily last week gave it 15.5% of votes—less than the AfD. And since the party’s chairman resigned after the completion of the coalition talks, it is now effectively leaderless.

Squeezed between the radical Left Party and a CDU that has moved to the center under Ms. Merkel, the SPD had less and less to offer voters, said

Thorsten Benner,

a Berlin-based political scientist.

Adding to this, social democracy in Germany and Europe as a whole is suffering from a deeper tension between its socially conservative working-class voters and urban left-leaning professionals with more liberal views on migration, according to

Matthew Goodwin,

a British political scientist monitoring the rise of populism in Europe.

“There is nothing the German mainstream can do now: From the perspective of populist voters they made a mistake in the refugee crisis, and another grand coalition will only make things worse,” he said.

But Ms. Merkel is diminished too. She remains Germany’s most popular politician and several polls show support for her party, though historically weak, has strengthened somewhat since the election. But the big concessions she made in the coalition negotiations—including granting a weakened SPD the powerful finance, labor and foreign ministries as well as tens of billions of euros in extra welfare spending—caused resentment in her own camp.

“Ms Merkel has sacrificed the interests of the CDU simply to remain in power,” said

Alexander Mitsch,

chairman of the CDU Business Council, a conservative pro-business group within the party. “She should give up the chancellorship and open the way for a renewal of the party.”

Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief of Bild, the newspaper that embarrassed the SPD with the dog prank, said Germany’s two main parties emerged weaker because they both had shied away from core concerns of their voters, including migration.

“If the mainstream parties don’t cover key subjects such as security and migration,” he said, “they will be captured by radicals from both the left and the right.”

The outcome of the SPD members’ vote will be published on March 4. One poll of SPD members shows a 66% support for another grand coalition, but pollsters have advised caution.

“It is a very difficult situation…the party is in turmoil. But I believe there will be a positive outcome, as new elections would only be good news for the populists,” said

Ralf Stegner,

the SPD’s deputy chairman. “People want a stable government after six months of quarreling and it’s our responsibility to provide it.”

If SPD members reject the deal, Ms. Merkel would have two alternatives. She could form a minority government, a volatile arrangement never tried since World War II except during very short transitions. She would have to cobble together a new parliamentary majority for each legislative initiative.

Some conservatives support such an arrangement, saying it would allow the party to occupy all ministries and push an unadulterated agenda, albeit with a tough path to legislative success.

Or she could seek new elections, which polls suggest would further boost non-centrist parties and deliver much the same political stalemate as the September ballot.

Whether she would lead the CDU ticket in that case is unclear.

Her appointment this week of

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer,

a longtime ally nicknamed “mini-Merkel” by the German media, as CDU secretary-general has fueled speculation the chancellor might be working on her succession. Most analysts see such a move as unlikely, however, since Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer isn’t as popular as Ms. Merkel, making the outcome of a snap election even more uncertain.

Appeared in the February 23, 2018, print edition as ‘German Government Hinges on Party Tally.’

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