Germany’s Social Democrats Meet Their Day of Reckoning

    E. Wayne Merry

    Politics, Europe

    Christian Democratic Union CDU party leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a news conference at the CDU party headquarters, the day after the general election (Bundestagswahl) in Berlin

    Germany is losing its political predictability and reliability.

    Government formation in Germany is approaching a crunch point. The main center-right (CDU/CSU) and center-left (SPD) parties have reached an agreement on a new grand-coalition government, similar to that which preceded inconclusive national elections last September. The crunch point will be a referendum on that agreement by the dues-paying, card-carrying membership of the Social Democratic Party.

    While many Germans vote SPD, only about 460,000 of them shell out real money to have a party card in their wallets and hence a chance to vote on the proposed coalition agreement of their leadership with Christian Democratic Party leader and chancellor Angela Merkel. This is an event without precedent. German political culture is top down: institutional leaders decide and the rank and file follow. The SPD recently held a national-party convention that narrowly gave party leader Martin Schulz a go-ahead to complete coalition negotiations with Merkel. By German political tradition, this should have been enough to bring about actual coalition and government formation within days.

    However, German politics today do not conform to postwar traditions, as the September elections demonstrated. Politics are increasingly fragmented, with party loyalties at record lows. The CDU/CSU and SPD once shared 90 percent of the vote; in September they won only 53 percent, the worst showing since the war for both. The Alternative for Germany achieved national stature with 13 percent, to become an established political voice on the far right, something German leaders had promised Europe would not happen. Several parties have faced near-death experiences recently, including the Free Democrats (FDP) who came back from the brink in September, and the Bavarian Christian Socialists (CSU) who in September looked over the brink by almost failing to achieve the threshold of 5 percent of the national vote needed for party-list representation in the national legislature, the Bundestag.

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