The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) has campaigned to get rid of Chancellor Merkel. It now gets ready to give her a new term for four years. This makes 11 247 283 broken promises.
The SPD as the oldest political party in Germany has demonstrated, again and again, that it knows when to assume responsibility and that it is able to put party-political interests behind the national good. After the recent elections it has to do so again but it must clarify what the national interest is. Providing a majority for Angela Merkel in the Bundestag is not what would serve Germany in the future.
Merkel is popular and German public opinion favours a Grand Coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD. But popularity is a fleeting glory that often ends in tears. Germany has weathered the Euro crisis better than others and superficial observers believe it is because of Merkel’s policies. However, the truth is that the German labour market has improved because of the structural reforms made by the Schröder government and, more importantly, because economic growth has been stimulated by the inflow of money and capital from the peripheral member states in the Euro Area.
Olivier Blanchard, now chief economist at the IMF, once spoke of the danger of “rotating slumps” in a Euro Area without a centralized macroeconomic government, but their mirror images are “rotating booms” and Germany is at the moment the prime beneficiary of Southern misery. Merkel has achieved “success” by first pouring petrol into the fire of the financial crisis when she resisted helping Southern economies, and then by further undermining confidence in the euro when she claimed German superiority and thereby implicitly condemned southern inferiority. No German Chancellor since World War II has been more unashamedly nationalist. Not surprisingly in this climate, Germany’s nasty nationalists have felt encouraged and have regrouped in the new party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) which is now gaining ground.
Yet, every boom is followed by a bust. German economists claim that the previous bubble in the Euro Area’s South has “masked underlying structural weaknesses”, but hardly anyone asks what the present boom is masking in Germany. The awakening will not be pleasant and responsible policy-makers should prepare today for the preservation of social justice and political stability after the mirage is over. Only social democrats could do so.
Political stability is important. Yes, Merkel has been elected three times but the price has been high for her partners and for German democracy. Social democrats lost 2.6 million votes when they governed in a Grand Coalition under Merkel; the Liberal FDP has lost 4.2 million this time. A coalition with Merkel means going into bed with Dracula. The loss of blood is dramatic and persistent: with 25.7%, the SPD is still at its second worst election result since 1949 (the worst was four years ago with 23%). It has not used the time in opposition productively.
Similarly, it is unlikely that the liberal party will return to power soon. More probable is that it will lose right wing members to the AfD, which will turn into a right wing party like the FPÖ in Austria or the Front National in France. The left wing liberals of the FDP may be absorbed by the Greens who will emerge as the party of long run ecological sustainability, civil liberties and pluralistic tolerance. In the meantime, the SPD will be in a Grand Coalition responsible for unpleasant reforms such as pension reforms and budget balance, while Die Linke, the former communist party of East Germany and now the third largest group in Parliament, will continue to undermine the SPD’s credibility as the defender of social justice. The long run consequences for Germany’s democracy will be severe. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) will cement it hegemonic position, the extreme right will be in Parliament, and the SPD will become more and more marginalized. Even if it may not disappear yet, as did the Italian or Japanese Socialist Parties, it may soon be reduced to third rank.
There is a simple reason why it is nearly impossible to regain a majority status as the junior partner of Mrs. Merkel: she is a skillful power player. A social democratic friend, who has observed her closely, once compared her to a croupier in a casino: she makes no bets on her own, meaning she has no policy commitments, but takes money from the other players. The German constitution gives the chancellor the Richtlinienkompetenz, the power to direct. But if Merkel has no direction, she can claim the benefits that SPD minsters are generating in her government. This is what happened during the financial crisis, when Peer Steinbrück, as social democratic finance minister, avoided the financial meltdown, which CDU-policies would have produced.
It is true that Germany’s first Grand Coalition 1966-69 has subsequently allowed Willy Brandt to become Chancellor, but times were different. The SPD was then the only innovating force in Germany. It remedied a severe recession by implementing Keynesian policies and it opened the way for the unification of the European continent by designing the new Ostpolitik. Today’s SPD proposes only marginal innovation and its single most important issue, its raison d’être, social justice, has been usurpated by Merkel and Die Linke. Under these circumstances, the party will not gain strength and German democracy will suffer because it is in the national interest to have a strong opposition that can provide coherent alternatives to a government that is without orientation.
What now? What should social democrats do after the worst possible electoral result? They could simply starve Merkel into new elections. Although this might give her an absolute majority, it could also clear the way for a stronger opposition. However, prolonged political instability in Germany is hardly what Europe needs. A coalition of the Merkel Dracula with the Greens would benefit the SPD, but both the CDU and the Greens seem smart enough to see that this is not in their strategic interest. The SPD should learn to think strategically too. It must broaden its political spectrum: it should remember that Willy Brandt defined it as the “party of liberty” and it must become a home for the social-liberal wing of German liberalism. It should also become a more radical defender of social justice, especially for the lowest income groups and unemployed. It must simultaneously integrate positions on its right and on its left into a coherent program for governing Germany and Europe. In short, it has to become a popular Volkspartei again.
Under Chancellor Merkel, this renewal is impossible. Her style of governing is too destructive for her partners. Yet, the SPD has responsibilities for Germany and Europe. It must be a force of stability. Hence, if a Grand Coalition is an unavoidable solution, the SPD should at least remember one promise it made before the elections – that it would replace Merkel. The condition sine qua non for a Grand Coalition must be that the CDU nominates a different person as Chancellor than Angela Merkel. German christian democracy has many women capable of doing the job. Starting afresh with a new Chancellor would put the clock back to zero. In the new government the SPD could prove that it is better than its christian democratic competitor. This would serve the national interest of Germany and it would be good for Europe.