German coalition government at risk following unexpected result in SPD leadership vote

The future of the German coalition government was put in doubt following Saturday’s shock result in the election of a new SPD leadership. The choice of Saskia Esken, a relatively unknown MP and Norbert Walter-Borjans, former regional minister from North Rhine-Westphalia, as the new co-leaders of the party is seen as a vote against the old leadership and the status quo. The new leaders have openly questioned the viability of the coalition with the conservative CDU/CSU.

Esken and Walter-Borjans beat the rival duo of Federal Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz and party back bencher Klara Geywitz, who were openly supported by the party establishment and the cabinet and seen as supportive of maintaining the grand coalition. The unexpected result heralds a new beginning for the party and was the result of a new grassroots selection procedure that clearly wanted to move on from the resignation of former party chair Ms. Andera Nahles, and the disastrous results in local elections and in the polls. While the party establishment may be shocked by the result, it was clear from listening to ordinary party members that something had to change and the party now moves into unchartered waters.

Within hours of being elected, Saskia Esken said that she and Norbert Walter-Borjans do not plan to go it alone on the subject of the government coalition, but rather work together with the group in the Bundestag  and the SPD ministers.  However there was no disguising her scepticism when she said live on TV “For democracy, the grand coalition is also crap.”

CDU have no intention of renegotiating coalition deal

Representatives of the conservative party were quick to express their concerns about a break of the coalition government: “The election of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans is a clear sign of the SPD base against a continuation of the grand coalition,” said Wolfgang Steiger, Secretary General of the CDU Economic Council on tagesschau.de. He warned that the CDU/CSU should not “get involved in new utopian demands of the Social Democrats just for the sake of retaining power”.

At this mid-point of the current government term, the new SPD-leadership wants to assess and re-calibrate the policy framework of the government set out in the coalition contract two years ago. However, Conservative politicians fear that the SPD will demand too much and Steiger warned CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer not to  make further concessions, “even if this would result in a temporary minority government or even new elections,”

What happens next?

On Friday, the Social Democrats will host their annual party convention where Esken and Walter-Borjans will be formally inaugurated. Then the party delegates – not the entire membership – will discuss and decide how to position the party within the government and the Grand Coalition. The most likely outcome is that the delegates will give the mandate to the new leadership duo to renegotiate the coalition contract. The ball is then in the  CDU/CSU court and with Kramp-Karrenbauer and Chancellor Merkel both weakened, anything seems possible.

My gut reaction – the coalition will fall

My gut reaction after the result is that the Grand Coalition will break. Not only because of unrealistic demands by the Social Democrats in renegotiations, but also because the  situation offers the best opportunity for Annette Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) to take over the chancellery from Angela Merkel.

AKK has just received a boost from the conservative party convention last weekend. Today it seems unlikely that her position will improve in the next 12 months, the timeline for the decision on her personal future. With the right spin the CDU/CSU could blame the break of the coalition entirely on the SPD and thus use it for a change in the chancellery. AKK would then probably try to run a minority government for as long as possible, with new election not before 2021 (the regular date for federal election is September 2021). Both main parties will want to avoid an election disrupting Germany taking over the presidency of the EU Council in July 2020.

It’s a time of great uncertainty and frankly anything could happen.