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Social Democracy’s Last Dance

Whether in or outside a grand coalition, Germany’s Social Democratic Party lacks the political imagination and organization to revive itself.

Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz in Berlin on February 7. Carsten Koall / Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s conflict-avoidance strategy has again proved successful. After failed — and lengthy — negotiations between the Greens, Liberals, and Christian Democrats, she seems to have put together another coalition agreement, once again securing her chancellorship by leaving key ministries, such as finance and the foreign ministry, to the Social Democrats.

Yet both the coalition and the chancellor herself are already in trouble. Not only has the once-overwhelming grand coalition shrunk to two parties, but it is now torn between the Right’s growing strength, the government’s commitment to neoliberal, pro-market policies, and popular demands for social security and stability. And that’s if the Social Democratic Party ends up going along with the deal. SPD members began voting on the coalition agreement this week, and it’s unclear what the result will be.

Though many regard the 2015 “refugee crisis” as a turning point in German politics, in reality it only exposed long-standing and unresolved structural problems. Political discourse has since shifted largely to the right, as feelings of frustration and helplessness are directed against “foreigners” rather than a progressive alternative. The grand coalition will only reinforce this trend, as all the agreed spending cuts impact refugees, and the few planned improvements are marginal compared to actual need, such as in the health-care sector and housing.

This shift is part of a remarkably open authoritarian turn unseen in postwar history, culminating in the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) entering parliament as opposition leader last fall.

Further, Horst Seehofer, leader of Merkel’s deeply conservative Bavarian sister party (CSU), will become minister of the interior, a department that now includes the areas of construction and “homeland” (Heimat). The so-called refugee question will thus fall under the purview of the coalition’s most right-wing element.

Seehofer has assumed a level of authority disproportionate to his party’s actual strength, thanks to Merkel’s falling approval ratings and the CSU’s relative strength compared to the CDU. Yet he is also a symbol of decay: the 68-year-old managed to escape a coup in his own party only by “fleeing” Bavaria for Berlin.

Compared to Donald Trump’s nationalist authoritarianism, the German right isn’t engaging in “Germany first”–style economic policies. The country’s status as an export nation remains unquestioned, which also secures its position as a mid-level capitalist power. Instead, the AfD’s influence on the CDU/CSU manifests as a cultural question concerning “the homeland” and the controversial concept of Leitkultur (dominant culture).

Symbolically, the conservatives won the battle to limit refugee intake, which was factually included in the coalition agreement even if it was not labeled as such. Similarly, the hotly contested family reunification policy is now limited to one thousand people a month. These numbers are discussed as if they represent Germany’s real capacity, but they are symbolic values in the political discourse, suggesting that all welfare questions have been shifted onto the terrain of immigration policy — a considerable success for the AfD.

The Christian Democrats’ adoption of this cultural question is most evident in its appropriation of the AfD’s rhetoric as well as their proclamation of a “conservative revolution” without specifying what this revolution actually entails. Instead of relying on their previous pro-business economic platform, the CDU has turned to a thin cultural alloy focused on the vague and potentially dangerous concept of Heimat (homeland).

Beneath this alloy, the party seems to be eroding: the pro-business wing, its own youth organization, and employers’ organizations believe the CDU’s economic orientation is endangered. Opponents and potential successors are eagerly lining up behind Merkel, though so far none have explicitly called for her resignation.

More of the Same

The new coalition’s other wing, the Social Democrats, has proven even more chaotic than usual in recent weeks. The party leadership’s constant flip-flops on whether it would join the government or not is embodied by Martin Schulz.

Schulz was handpicked from the European Parliament and given the buzzword “social justice,” as part of an attempt to give the party a makeover for the new elections. Sigmar Gabriel, his predecessor, left him the party chairmanship so that the SPD would have a chance at the Federal Chancellery and so that he could become foreign minister. A wave of enthusiasm followed, but tactical mistakes and infighting dampened enthusiasm before long. The slogan of social justice was never filled with content.

Schulz pledged before the election that he wouldn’t seek a ministry in any grand coalition, but he did the exact opposite afterwards when he announced that he wanted to occupy the Foreign Ministry in the new coalition. A personal battle between him and Gabriel supporters ensued. Ultimately, Schulz both lost the support of SPD insiders and became a personification of the descent and the incredibility of the party.

And yet, the party has found a new presumed savior — head of the Young Socialists (Jusos), Kevin Kühnert.

The SPD’s left, along with Kühnert and the Jusos, opposes the grand coalition in the ongoing membership vote. In their view, the concessions to the CSU are too large, their party leadership too undemocratic, and the political separation between it and its coalition partner too meager. This skepticism continues to grow due to the SPD’s falling poll ratings (currently around 17 percent, the lowest ever, and in some polls even behind than the AfD).

Those in favor of the coalition, however, argue that the party has gained several important ministerial posts and achieved some small steps toward progressive policies. They have the support of the majority of SPD voters — where they stand with the party membership is less clear.

Whether in or outside a grand coalition, the last weeks have made clear that German Social Democracy lacks both political imagination and militant grassroots organization. The Jusos have become a career ladder for future party functionaries rather than an incubator of grand political visions. Though the youth wing’s “No-Groko” campaign is supposedly being advised by Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum movement, we shouldn’t expect a similar dynamic to emerge. Newly designated party leader Andrea Nahles summed this up when she described a renewal while inside government at the last party conference. She conveyed her paradoxical statement in a combative tone, but all the leading party figures and its platform have stayed exactly the same.

Olaf Scholz, for example, has been named finance minister. The architect of the SPD’s neoliberal policies in the early 2000s, Scholz worked hard to repress left-wing demonstrations during the G20 summit while mayor of Hamburg. Like his predecessor Wolfgang Schäuble, he will stick to the so-called Black Zero policy — avoiding any and all deficit spending — and will not permit Keynesian policies for the sake of economic stimulus. The fact that a Social Democrat now administers the federal budget will make little noticeable difference: if anything, his presence signifies how close the two major parties have grown.

Scholz will also pursue a monetary stability policy within the European Union. This means he will probably not change the German model of government saving and austerity. The coalition agreement continues to maintain currency stability and Germany’s competitiveness within the union.

Socially oriented policies, such as a European minimum wage, appear in the coalition agreement only in the vaguest of terms. In fact, there are hardly any signs of innovations at the European level at all. As a result, Germany’s massive export surplus, its own no-debt policy, and the monetary policy it pushes at the European Central Bank will continue to prevent economic and social balance within the European Union.

The Opposition

Despite the appearance of German economic strength, signs of stagnation loom. All opposition parties rightly accuse the grand coalition of stagnation and a lack of ideas, but none of them have managed to formulate serious counter projects.

The AfD is split into a market-liberal and a national-social wing, though both combine a right-wing populist rhetoric. The Greens have elected new leadership, which is attempting to rediscover left-liberal politics but only beginning to develop a green capitalist project for their middle-class base. The liberal Free Democrats are attempting to position themselves behind a program of modernization, tech innovation, and the charisma of their leader, Christian Lindner.

Die Linke for its part isn’t yet profiting from the SPD’s decline. In public, the party is divided over its stance on immigration and how much strain it’s putting on the welfare state. It’s seen as a debate between party leader Katja Kipping and the chairwoman of the parliamentary group, Sarah Wagenknecht. In party-internal debates, they are portrayed as faces of two different milieus that are to be represented: on the one hand, Kipping’s young cosmopolitan milieu, on the other, Wagenknecht’s working-class one.

This disunity paralyzes the underlying central question for the party, namely how it can develop a left agenda at a national and a European level. In any case, Wagenknecht’s call for a broad left-wing movement has so far failed to develop precise contours, and possible supporters outside the party are still uncertain.

All four opposition parties hover at around 10 percent, competing to be the loudest voice in the opposition. All of them are searching both for their own hegemonic project and for the right person to embody such a move. The question of possible future alliances remains open.

Under these conditions, it will be difficult for Merkel to defend herself from threats, external and internal. Her political style of negotiating compromises and administering the neoliberal policy crafted by the SPD under Gerhard Schröder has most likely reached its limits. It is unclear if Merkel and the coalition will be able to survive the next major external shock, whether it be another so-called refugee crisis or a financial crash. Meanwhile, struggles within the two governing parties could easily result in the coalition’s premature end. Even if approved by SPD members, it is hard to predict whether the government will manage to serve a full term.

What is clear, however, is that this will be the last “grand” coalition under Merkel’s leadership. It marks the beginning of a grand transition to a new party constellation and political landscape, the precise contours of which have yet to be drawn.