The main conclusion of the German TV debate between the German chancellor Angela Merkel and her social democratic challenger Peer Steinbrück on Sunday night is that another grand coalition is the likely outcome – and that this could also be beneficial for the SPD. Let me explain.
One of the buzzwords of the campaign so far has been “asymmetric demobilisation”, which basically means Angela Merkel trying to keep the election campaign so dull that many people don’t even bother going to the ballot box. Given that the conservative camp traditionally has a stronger feeling of responsibility when it comes to turning out to vote, she loses less than her opponents from this strategy: hence asymmetric.
However, I think that this is the wrong reading of her tactics. To my mind Merkel is a much more astute observer of social democracy than many people give her credit for. The current campaign looks much more like she has learned lessons from social democracy and has reverse-engineered the third way to suit her short-term electoral aims.
The core of the third way was an electoral strategy that emulated the popular policies of the political competition whilst at the same time relying on the traditional core vote not going anywhere else. I think this is exactly what Merkel is doing. Given the already mentioned reliable core vote of the conservatives, she can accommodate social democratic policies to take any political edge away. Whether it is the minimum wage, rent controls or more support for families, the CDU proposes policies that at least sound similar to what the SPD is offering, even though there are significant differences in the policy substance.
At the end of the day, however, it feels like there is not much difference between the two main political parties. Against this backdrop, fighting the incumbent taken together with the quite good economic circumstances in Germany makes it very hard for Peer Steinbrück to make major inroads into Merkel’s support. It’s a political agenda to suffocate, not demobilise, the political opposition.
The German chancellor is famous for her – depending on how you see it – ideological flexibility or lack of permanent values. She is a manager of the status quo rather than a leader that seeks political change. Long gone are her neoliberal days (domestically it has to be said), culminating in the Leipzig CDU programme of 2003. People in Germany have been astounded by her quick U-turns, for instance on German nuclear energy and compulsory military service. As result of her political flexibility and gradual shift towards the centre over recent years, there could now be more political common ground than previously if another grand coalition were to be formed after the election.
Having suffered at the polls coming out of a grand coalition four years ago, the SPD is wary of a rerun of this government option. However, I think there are three reasons for why such fears could be misplaced this time around. First, there is no general rule that in a grand coalition the social democratic partner always fares badly. After the first grand coalition in Germany, the 1969 election brought gains for the social democrats and swept Willy Brandt, previously the foreign secretary, into the chancellor’s office. Who gains in a grand coalition depends very much on the specific circumstances. And the circumstances this time are much better than in 2009.
This is because, and this is my second point, Merkel is very unlikely to run again in 2017, so whoever the social democratic candidate will be, he or she will not run against the incumbent. Given Merkel’s talent for sending most of her inner-party rivals into early retirement, the choice of personnel in the CDU is rather poor.
This is, to come to my final point, quite different in the SPD, where – in addition to the main federal figures of the party – a new generation of leaders is growing in the regions after a string of very successful elections over recent years. So the next SPD candidate might not even be an ex-member of the federal government and would thus find it easier to propose a fresh new programme for the next election period without the constraints that wore Frank-Walter Steinmeier down four years ago.
The next few years will bring enormous tasks, especially with a view to the necessary European reform process and a grand coalition in Germany could be a powerful motor for change. Don’t get me wrong; I would of course prefer a red-green coalition under Peer Steinbrück. This remains the best option. But if this were not possible, another grand coalition would be much better – for Germany and for Europe – than a rerun of the badly performing conservative-liberal government. And this time around, it could also help the SPD to win the elections in four years time.
This column was first published by The Guardian