450,000-plus Social Democratic party members will decide whether to enter another grand coalition under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Past referendums have been formalities, but this time the result is anything but assured.
The 463,723 party members of the SPD have particularly important pieces of mail in their letterboxes – ballots asking them to decide on the coalition deal the Social Democratic leadership hammered out with Chancellor Merkel’s conservatives earlier this month.
The Social Democratic rank-and-file have until March 2 to submit their votes, and the result is expected to be announced the following day.
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The vote is an all-or-nothing affair. If the SPD membership gives the thumbs up, Germany finally gets a new government – six months after the national election last September. If the members say no, the result will either be fresh elections or an uneasy attempt by Merkel to lead a minority government – in any case, further political uncertainty.
Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union will convene for a party conference in Berlin on February 26, where delegates will be asked to approve the coalition. A clear majority for the deal is expected. Yet SPD approval is not a given. In the past, the SPD membership has approved deals with Merkel by wide margins, but this vote is likely to be very tight.
No rubber stamps this time
There have been two grand coalitions between the conservatives and the SPD, but neither was even remotely as problematic as this one.
In 2005, delegates to a special SPD conference approved the first Merkel government by a wide margin. The coalition took power two months after the national election. In 2013, Social Democrat party members ratified a second coalition with Merkel, with 76 percent of respondents voting yes.
The Social Democratic leadership can only dream of a result like that in 2018. At a special SPD conference in January, only 60 percent of delegates voted to authorize their leaders to hold coalition talks with the conservatives.
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Former party chairman Martin Schulz had to step down after flip-flopping on the grand coalition and trying to claim the post of foreign minister. The newly designated chairwoman Andrea Nahles and acting party leader Olaf Schulz are struggling to assert their authority with the SPD dropping to historic lows of 16 percent in opinion polls.
Meanwhile, the SPD’s youth wing, the Jusos, who are led by popular 28-year-old Kevin Kühnert, are continuing to oppose the deal and will be staging events across Germany in the days to come, trying to get members to vote no. SPD enrollment has increased by some 25,000 in recent weeks, and there has been speculation that many new members may have joined specifically in order to oppose the grand coalition.
Is the SPD vote even constitutional?
Yet even as both the conservative and Social Democratic leaderships seek approval of the coalition deal, there has been criticism among some prominent CDU members of the SPD member referendum.
The influential state premier of Rhineland Palatinate, Julia Klöckner, accused SPD leaders of “delegating away” authority by giving the rank-and-file the chance to make the final decision.
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“The SPD leadership should lead instead of causing confusion,” Klöckner told a group of German newspapers.
Others, including some political scientists, have questioned whether it’s constitutional to give SPD members what amounts to a right of veto over the next government. Five complaints have been filed with Germany’s Constitutional Court, but the judges have refused to hear them.
So, essentially, the SPD’s procedure has been deemed legal. The 450,000-plus rank-and-file now have two weeks to fill out and return their ballots, after which all of Germany will learn whether Merkel will able to form a third grand coalition or not.