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Germany

Opinion: A crucial test for Germany's SPD

The outcome of a referendum in favor of joining a grand coalition government with the center-right CDU was a crucial test for Germany's Social Democrats, says DW's Volker Wagener.

High turnout, overwhelming support: Germany's new grand coalition government is ready to go. The center-left Social Democrats (SPD), exhausted and quarreling after losing the last federal election with their second-worst result ever, now have something to crow about.

The SPD this past year would have liked to have been in better shape; after all, they celebrated their 150th anniversary. Instead, the outcome at the ballot box in September's federal election was pretty paltry. The experts couldn't help asking: Can a party with just 26 percent of the vote still call itself a broad-based party for the masses?

Volker Wagener

DW's Volker Wagener

Everybody thought the party was at the end of its rope. But, nothing doing: Tattered and almost broken, party leader Sigmar Gabriel leaned way out the window. In order to govern alongside Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), he had to make a grand coalition palatable to his party's rank-and-file, a party base still licking the wounds it sustained at the hands of the CDU between 2005 and 2009.

The Social Democrats were the junior partner in the coalition, marginalized by the popular Merkel and the CDU, and failing to distinguish themselves in any notable way.

This was not supposed to happen again, so this time around the SPD rank-and-file were to be consulted whether the party should join the Merkel parade - again as a junior partner - for another four years. Under SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the party was once steamrolled into accepting his steep cuts in social welfare programs. Gabriel was bent on putting an end to that.

Into the limelight

The SPD leader risked more democracy and won over the party for what has surprisingly emerged as a rather SPD-friendly coalition agreement. Gabriel is the 'father' of this coalition - and not Merkel the 'mother.' Merkel made more concessions than she would have liked, so now, even before things really get going, the Social Democrats have been able to clearly reduce Merkel's political sway - an unexpected achievement for a party that just a few weeks ago had its back to the wall.

The next step for the SPD in the grand coalition is to win back lost ground and political stature. But, it won't be easy because the party can no longer lay claim to being the sole advocate of social democracy. Besides, its political concepts do not differ much from those of Merkel's CDU.

Perhaps the new super economy and energy ministry that Gabriel has reserved for himself can help. Next to the finance ministry, it is the most important portfolio in the cabinet. Although the German economy gets little from the economics ministry, it is now tied to Merkel's new energy concept toward more renewable energy sources, like wind and solar - a switch that followed the nuclear accident in Fukushima. Alongside managing the euro and debt crises, it will be a central focus of the new legislative period - and this puts Gabriel in the driver's seat.

2017 election campaign already underway

Sigmar Gabriel is the sole political survivor of the SPD triumvirate that included Peer Steinbrück and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He is ambitious and blessed with a healthy portion of populism. He could be a real challenger for Merkel in the 2017 parliamentary election. He is a political professional and excellent public speaker. What he has lacked so far is the sympathy factor - what people like so much about Merkel: her restraint and simplicity in gestures and words.

Gabriel is more the swashbuckler, although the SPD referendum has taught him the value of getting all his ducks in a row. It was a masterful defensive effort.

And now, one thing is clear: In her third term, Angela Merkel will have a very self-confident coalition partner at her side, and a vice-chancellor who is going to play second fiddle no longer than necessary.

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