Public Affairs & Government Relations

Surprise Vote in SPD Leadership Contest

Germany’s grand coalition in troubled waters as Merkel’s junior partners are no longer committed to staying in government

Germany’s government is in crisis mode. FTI’s Martin Kothé in Berlin takes a look at possible scenarios:

Sensational Blow to Olaf Scholz

Germany’s SPD, the social democratic junior partner of Angela Merkel’s government, is in turmoil after a vote of party members brought a new leadership which is open to leaving the grand coalition. In a surprise result, a majority of about 53 per cent of participating members opted for the team of Norbert Walter-Borjans from North-Rhine-Westfalia and Saskia Esken from Baden-Wuerttemberg, two unknown politicians with no experience in national politics. This came as a serious blow to Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who was expected to win the race with his team mate Klara Geywitz, a former parliamentarian from the state of Brandenburg. They only secured about 45 per cent. Only about half of the 430,000 SPD members took part in the vote which will be binding for the delegates to confirm at a special party convention in early December.

A Campaign about Mobilization and Innuendo

Overall, only about 115,000 votes were enough to secure Walter-Borjans and Esken the party leadership; that is equivalent to about 27 per cent of those eligible to vote. During their inner party campaign over the last months, the winners made sure to be perceived as critical of the grand coalition, echoing a sentiment often heard from the party base. This brought them success while it served to belittle Olaf Scholz who was branded as the key representative of a closed leadership circle only interested in keeping their offices and privileges.

Looking ahead, it‘s likely that the new SPD leadership will approach the CDU with further political demands in the coming days and weeks. It will then be a matter of the CDU’s reaction if the grand coalition continues or not.

CDU still in the Driver’s Seat

If the CDU does not give in to further SPD demands, Chancellor Angela Merkel could kick the SPD out of cabinet, and either try to forge another majority together with the FDP and the Greens, or opt for a minority government for the time being. In present circumstances, the minority option, although never tested in modern German history before, seems more likely: One, the Greens would only come in third place in a such a coalition (they were considerably behind the FDP in the 2017 elections, and will find this unattractive given their current strength), and two, with the budget just passed in late November a real stress test for a minority government will only come in a year’s time, when the next budget will be up.

The third option, of course, is snap elections some time early in 2020. But this seems less likely today, as no party except for the Greens will find this a promising time for their own prospects. Plus, Germany is up for the European Council presidency starting in July 2020, and it’s easy to see Angela Merkel would wish to be still in charge during that time (she has made it clear that she is unwilling to stand for another general election).

The Winners: Puppets of the Party Youth Leader?

So, be prepared for anything in German politics in the coming weeks, but also for nothing: there is the option that the winners will allow themselves to be fenced in by the party professionals in government and faction and will continue the grand coalition as if nothing had happened. After all, the winners didn’t win on merit – both never were in a leading position before and performed at unremarkable levels in past positions – but their victory is a success in terms of campaigning and mobilization, not in substance.

The man behind the scenes is Kevin Kühnert, head of the SPD party youth organization, who pushed strongly against the Scholz team in favour of today’s winners. Kühnert’s block is about 80,000 members strong, all eligible to vote, and if he mobilized them fully, they can take credit for turning things around. Thus, many see the new leadership as Kühnert’s puppets.

As for Olaf Scholz: he will probably stay on as Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister for the time being, but only at the mercy of the winners. And it seems he will have to bury his hopes to step into Angela Merkel’s footsteps one day.

The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members or employees.

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