Five months of political paralysis in Europe’s largest economy have ended in a “grand coalition” in which the Social Democrats have one again risked their historical soul. In a deal which secures Angela Merkel’s fourth term in power, the longest period without a government has been brought to an end with the Social Democrats determined to avoid responsibility for political and economic chaos.
But the SPD announcement came after a deeply divisive internal debate over the party’s future direction following one of the worst general results in its history at the polls las September.
With the far-right Alternative for Germany party – which holds the first seats as an overtly nationalist party – in official opposition in the Bundestag, both the SPD and Merkel’s party face calls for change. Expectations for the left-of-centre part were reflected in relief and only muffled support when the announcement was made behind closed doors at the party headquarters.
After two previous grand coalitions each of which ended in election humiliation, the SPD are this time committed to a different, more aggressive strategy to carve out a more distinctive profile.
First, they have in Andrea Nahles a putative leader who is a left-leaning former leader of the Young Socialist youth wing, a forceful orator and a politician not afraid of taking on Merkel as an equal. She is expected to take over leadership of Europe’s oldest social democrat party from incumbent Martin Schulz at a special summit in April.
A former coalition labour minister, Nahles is not expected to take either ministerial office or a shadow cabinet post, preferring to act as a free-rein attack squad leader. As well as Merkel and the conservative CDU she plans a full assault on the AfD, which she will accuse of dividing Germany and emulating neo-fascism.
The SPD started its attack on the CDU even before the announcement of the coalition, setting up a public showdown with the predominantly Catholic CDU over abortion rights.
But the reason for the restrained cheers at party headquarters were down to a single but immense realisation. It’s because the challenge ahead for the SPD is existential. And while Merkel goes about product-placing her possible successor, all parties fear the beneficiaries of any collapse at the centre of German politics will only be the AfD extremists.