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Germany

Germany's Social Democrats are smiling again

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), humbled by its miserable election results in September, now feels like the winner of the "grand coalition" government. But risks lurk ahead, especially in the area of energy policy.

The SPD has claimed six of the nine German federal ministries, including the coveted foreign and economics ministries as well as labor and social affairs. And it has done so after winning just 25 percent of the vote in the recent federal election. Even the most optimistic Social Democrats could hardly have dreamt of such an achievement.

"I have not been as proud to be a Social Democrat as I have in the recent weeks and months," SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel told party members after the grand coalition had been agreed. Gabriel is the new economics and energy minister as well as vice-chancellor.

Gabriel showed no signs of being depressed or resigned as he did on the evening of the election in September. The SPD has, after all, fought back to be on a equal footing with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU). And the party is looking ahead to the next four years more confidently than ever.

'Good tactician with a strong instinct'

How has the SPD achieved such a feat, especially with a man at the top who many have long derided?

Answers vary. The SPD politician and long-time social affairs expert Rudolf Dressler, who is not among the supporters of the grand coalition, doesn't think much of newspaper headlines that glamorize Gabriel as a super-politician. Yet the 73-year-old parliamentarian acknowledges that his party is currently in a good position. Gabriel, he said, was long underrated and often criticized for his occasionally rough and abrupt style.

Rudolf Dressler Foto: Karlheinz Schindler +++(c) dpa - Report+++

SPD social expert Rudolf Dressler isn't optimistic about the grand coalition

"Now it's just the opposite," Dressler told DW. "No one could criticize him for achieving what he did. Now everyone is saying he's like a phoenix that has risen from the ashes." Gabriel had broken new ground by allowing party members to decide for or against the grand coalition.

"Gabriel has always been a good tactician, and he's managed this with a good feel for what was needed," said Jens Thurau, long-time Berlin correspondent for DW. "He knew he could only push through this grand coalition by involving the party members."

According to Thurau, Gabriel took a big risk and won in the end, but he isn't the only one responsible for the SPD's improved standing: "The SPD, unlike the CDU, ran a very content-driven campaign." That meant they went into the coalition negotiations with clear demands: "In its heart, the SPD knew that it would have to go into this coalition, so the party came much better prepared."

Massive resistance

So Gabriel proved himself a skilled architect in building the grand coalition. But his true masterpiece still lies ahead. As Federal Economics and Energy Minister, he is also responsible for the country's energy transition - a significant issue for the future but one that also holds numerous risks. He will need to push ahead with the expansion of renewable energy against massive resistance - on the one side from industry, which wants more cheap power, and on the other from consumers, who are worried about further price increases for electricity and gas.

Foto: Paul Zinken/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

The coalition government faces massive resistance to its energy plans

On top of that come the countless citizen initiatives that are opposed to high-voltage power lines extending through their towns and nature reserves. "It's quite a balancing act that he'll need to master," said Thurau.

Brusselsis also applying pressure. On Wednesday (18.12.2013), the European Commission opened proceedings against Germany because of its renewable energy levy - a surcharge on electricity, which flows into coffers for funding renewable energies. The act currently exempts more than 100 companies from paying the levy. If the Commission rules that Germany's renewable energy law doesn't comply with EU law, the country's entire painstakingly negotiated energy transition could run aground.

Dressler believes the current success of the SPD rests on sand. Everything depends on whether the CDU and CSU coalition partners support the policies which have been agreed in the coalition agreement. "I predict that they will not," he says, "and so, when things have really to be decided, the SPD will have huge problems." Many plans in the coalition agreement, such as improvements to the pension system, are not based on solid financing, he added. And if that results in higher premiums for the insured, the SPD will have to take the rap.

"I fear that the SPD will experience a setback again, as it did with the last grand coalition in 2005," Dressler said "and that it will not increase trust in the party - but lose it."

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