There is no beating around the bush. Yesterday‘s election result for the SPD, the worst since World War Two, hurts. It hurts a lot. And while Angela Merkel seemed unduly happy about her result, the worst since 1949, the SPD accepted the sobering outcome and announced the end of the Grand Coalition. As if this was not bad enough, the whole situation was rendered far worse by the result of the right-ring populists of the AfD, who will enter parliament as the third strongest party. A tectonic shift in German politics.
You often hear the saying ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’ in tough situations and it mostly functions as a motivational rallying cry intended to cover up deep-seated despair. But when the initial fog lifted and I had a closer look at the new political dynamics at play my mood brightened. The bad election result certainly is a severe crisis but there is also a very clear opportunity for the SPD to pick up the pieces and stage a comeback quite quickly. Here is why.
As I commented for CNN’s election live blog the fourth Merkel government will be her most unstable one; and it will be her last. The basic reason is that the only viable governing options left on the table are a so-called Jamaica coalition (with the Green party and the liberal FDP) or some sort of minority government. Neither of them has ever happened in Germany at federal level so this is generally new territory.
A minority government is inherently unstable but also in a Jamaica coalition Merkel will be caught between a rock and a hard place. The AfD had an unexpectedly good result in Bavaria, where the CSU (Merkel’s sister party in Bavaria) has lost substantial ground. The party chairman Horst Seehofer has already announced that he thinks that ‘leaving the right flank open’ was the main reason for this poor showing. Given that Bavarian elections are looming next year, it is predictable that he will try to pull the next German government to the right. And having a shrill extremist party like the AfD in the federal parliament will also push Merkel in the same direction.
In contrast to this her two new potential coalition partners, the FDP and the Greens, would try to pull the new government towards the political centre. The end result might well be an administration where preciously little happens in real terms as severe cross pressure could render the government paralysed. Merkel’s already declining star might start to decline much more quickly.
The SPD in contrast will have the opportunity to regroup in opposition facing a rather weak government. It will have the breathing space to develop an alternative politics for Germany with which it can contest the next election in 2021 (or earlier). The AfD is unlikely to be an effective opposition party as it freely admits to having no policy at all in many key areas. It is also likely to fall back into internal tribalism and conflicts between its populist and even more extreme wings. The final party in parliament, Die Linke, did not do very well in opposition against the Grand Coalition and is unlikely to play a more dominant role this time around. These dynamics could work well for the SPD.
Yesterday, German politics were transformed. The SPD must take up the challenge and renew itself in opposition to present a clear alternative to a declining Merkel government. It needs to be ready when the time comes – and it might come quicker than you think.
The Grand Coalition was never intended to be a permanent model and it is beyond its shelf-date now. It is time to broaden political competition within the democratic camp. If the SPD is successful in developing an alternative politics in opposition, not only might it regain a strong position soon but it might also make an important contribution to bringing AfD voters back into the mainstream fold. Yesterday’s election was a political earthquake and not every crisis provides an opportunity. This one, however, truly does.