There were some wins for the center-left, like a ban on exporting weapons to countries involved in Yemen’s ongoing war (German companies have been involved in lucrative arms deals with Saudi Arabia) and reforming the EU with a euro-zone budget and better protections against financial crises. After delegates voted on the framework agreement Sunday, Schulz promised to wrest further important concessions in the next stage of talks.
To keep the groundswell of resistance at bay, he’ll need to deliver. Many in the SPD blame their embarrassing election result on their last four years as the junior partner to Merkel’s conservatives. They say she has taken credit for their policies and successes. Working with her while also trying to reclaim their identity is the last thing on their minds.
The heated debate at the party conference on Sunday reflected the SPD’s unsavory position: If they reject a coalition, the political uncertainty continues; if they join a coalition, they risk losing more voters and creating the impression there really is no alternative to a grand coalition.
For the Jusos, the SPD’s youth wing, the latter option is political suicide. In December, it launched a vocal campaign against a coalition government under the hastag #NoGroko, or “no grand coalition,” whipping up support over the last two months in a bid to restore what they regard as their lost credibility. In the lead-up to Sunday’s conference, Kevin Kühnert, the leader of Jusos, became something of a media darling, trailed by a growing mass of cameras and reporters. After an ardent conservative in Merkel’s bloc called the grassroots resistance a “rebellion of the dwarves,” some of the SPD’s younger delegates donned gnome hats on Sunday. One speaker quoted the dwarf warrior Gimli from Lord of the Rings, quipping: “Certainty of death, small chance of success, what are we waiting for?”
Sunday’s divided outcome also revealed a deeper debate roiling the SPD. Metin Hakverdi, an SPD politician from Hamburg who supported coalition negotiations, said that the party must define what social democracy means in a globalized, 21st-century world. “Social democracy needs to make clear why it’s needed. That is the most important question, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the decision of whether to enter a coalition or not.”
Hakverdi said that renewing the SPD’s image will take time. In the near term, he said, it holds the key to breaking through Germany’s political stalemate. And contrary to the naysayers, things can be different this time around: Merkel doesn’t enjoy the same levels of support she once did after her own party’s poor showing in elections. Her right flank, still smarting from historic election losses to the AfD, is also vying to gain concessions. The CSU is facing a regional election in the fall, and is keen to show voters it, too, is tough on immigration. “Angela Merkel is by no means as strong and influential as she was four years ago. That counts internationally, in Europe, in Germany, and within her party, and that’s a big game-changer,” Hakverdi said.