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Germany

Germany's Social Democrats face stark choices

Nearly two months after German elections, Social Democrats are in Leipzig for a party conference. Delegates have re-elected Sigmar Gabriel to head the party, but are hesitant about forming a coalition with conservatives.

Social Democrats in the capital Berlin are in the midst of talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel's alliance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), over a grand coalition government. But it's unclear whether Germany's two largest political groups will actually form a government together.

Initial results from countless negotiations in working groups have been presented, but they've been so paltry and far removed from the SPD election platform that it's also uncertain whether the party base will be convinced to go along with it. If party leaders reach a deal with the CDU/CSU, members will be called upon in December to vote on joining a grand coalition to govern the country.

Bad experience with grand coalition

It's no easy choice for the party base, which currently is either reserved about a grand coalition, or has completely rejected it. Many party members in the various local branches fear the SPD will forfeit its distinction, paving the wave for even more disastrous results for the party in the next national election in 2017. During national elections this past September, the SPD only managed to gain 25.7 percent of the vote.

Leaders from the CDU/CSU-SPD coalition government in 2005 Copyright: AP Photo/Jan Bauer)

Leaders from the CDU/CSU-SPD coalition government in 2005

Their fears are not unfounded. Looking at election results from 2009, following a four-year grand coalition under Merkel's leadership, the SPD managed to garner only 23.3 percent of the vote. That was a 10 percent drop from 2005 - when the SPD and CDU/CSU were nearly neck and neck - and the worst results since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany. The performance also came as a shock to the SPD, which saw its support drop among the blue-collar workers who once formed the party base.

Opening up to the Left Party

In that light, the idea of another grand coalition is by no means popular among party members. It's also why the left-wing of the party in particular would like to see greater cooperation with the Left party. An SPD/Left alliance can no longer be ruled out, according to Jan Stöß, SPD head in the city-state of Berlin.

The SPD's Sigmar Gabriel negotiates with Chancellor Merkel on a possible coalition Copyright: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa

The SPD's party chairman Sigmar Gabriel negotiates with Chancellor Merkel on a possible coalition

He said he wants to see movement in this direction at the 4-day party convention in Leipzig, which begins Thursday (14.11.2013). He said such coalitions have been possible in local governments and in eastern German states for some time. The state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania saw the first SPD/Left coalition take office in 1998 and govern until 2006. In the city-state of Berlin, an SPD/Left coalition governed from 2002 to 2011.

But at the national level, such a coalition has been rejected, with SPD leadership pointing to too many differences in central issues such as the role of the German military as well as in economic policies.

There's also still some bellyaching over former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine, who surprised everyone in 1999 by resigning as German finance minister in the SPD/Greens coalition government and then exiting the SPD in 2005. He went on to became one the leaders of the Left party.

The party convention

SPD Secretary General Andrea Nahles Copyright: Ole Spata/dpa

SPD Secretary General Andrea Nahles

To pacify the left-wing of the SPD, the strict rejection of cooperating with the Left will likely soften. Yet SPD party chairman Sigmar Gabriel is beating the drum for a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU for pragmatic reasons - not ideological ones. In a new grand coalition government, he would likely take on the role of German vice chancellor.

But during the party conference in Leipzig, the focus will be on choosing new leadership with elections for party chairperson, five deputies, and the party's executive committee. No one is expecting any surprises, however. Only the governing mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, will give up his post as SPD deputy chair. Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, SPD chair in the state of Hesse, where he is also currently conducting talks over a possible coalition for his state government, could grab that post. SPD Secretary General Andrea Nahles will also run for re-election.

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