Despite their recent shared history, the two sides have had a remarkably difficult time finding their way back to each other. Both Merkel’s center-right and Schulz’s center-left blocs are wary of reviving a political marriage that many believe has run its course. But with Germany experiencing an unfamiliar bout of political uncertainty, their fates are bound once again.
The SPD is still reeling from Germany’s national election in September, in which it won just 20.5 percent of the vote—its worst result since the end of World War II. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), also sputtered, dropping nearly nine percentage points. The far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD), meanwhile, won nearly 13 percent, entering the Bundestag for the first time.
The anger between Schulz and Merkel’s camps is real. Back on election night, a grim-faced Schulz announced the SPD would lead the opposition. He accused Merkel of refusing to engage in any real debate, allowing the right-wing populists to flourish. Merkel fired back, deeming the SPD unfit to govern. But when her efforts to cobble an unlikely coalition with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats imploded, the chancellor acclaimed for winning hard-wrought compromises on the international stage found herself diminished at home.
Merkel now faces the prospect of forming a minority government—unprecedented in German history. She would be forced to corral votes among opposition parties in order to push legislation through both houses of parliament. The SPD has floated the possibility of tolerating a minority government in lieu of joining a coalition—in other words, they would pledge their votes to Merkel on policy issues where they concur, but would not be compelled to compromise on issues where they do not. Yet in a parliament where the AfD holds 94 seats, this could force Merkel to rely on the far-right’s votes, a prospect she has spurned.
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a close ally of Merkel’s within the CDU, said a minority government, while not their first choice, would “significantly elevate the importance of our parliament—it would mean putting forth proposals every time and then ask who is on board,” she told me. “It is indeed uncommon for Germany, but it would truly put our sincerity and duty to voters to the test.”
Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat before taking the post, is tasked with solving the stalemate. He could dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections—an option he has rejected. Instead, he has appealed to major parties to rethink their positions and duty to the country. Especially the SPD.
Ralf Stegner, one of the party’s deputy chiefs, argued that it is on Merkel, who failed to build a coalition government, to find a way out of the mess. “If there is one party that does not need to be attacked for putting party interests over those of the country, it is us,” he told me. “It’s not us that want something from the conservatives, but the other way around.” And so a leery SPD will enter talks with Merkel seeking to extract concessions: embracing French President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for closer cooperation and integration on the European level; dramatically increasing education spending; abolishing short-term or limited work contracts; closing the gender pay gap; and discarding private health insurance. (German healthcare works as a dual private-public coverage system.)