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SPD leader's resignation shakes Merkel's coalition

June 2, 2019

Andrea Nahles, the leader of Germany's SPD, has announced her resignation following poor results for her party at the European elections. The move could destabilize Angela Merkel's coalition.

Andrea Nahles
Image: Imago Images/E. Contini

Andrea Nahles has announced her resignation as leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its parliamentary group, saying she wanted to give the party the chance to elect the next leader in an orderly way after disastrous European election results.

The choice of Nahles' successor could prove crucial for Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose conservative Christian Democrats CDU/CSU lead the German government in coalition with the Social Democrats. A more left-leaning leader of the SPD could take the party out of the alliance, potentially ending Merkel's chancellorship.

Read more: Could Germany see a new left-wing coalition in government?

"The discussions within the parliamentary group and the large amount of feedback from the party have shown me that there is no longer support for me in holding these offices," Nahles wrote in a statement to SPD members on Sunday. She said she would step down as party leader on Monday and as parliamentary leader on Tuesday, and according to some media reports was also going to resign her seat in the Bundestag, though a date for that has not been set.

Initial signals from the CDU suggest the conservatives are determined to keep the coalition together. Merkel's successor as party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said she had acknowledged Nahles' resignation with great respect.

"I expect the SPD will make the now necessary personnel decisions quickly, so as not to impair the ability of the grand coalition to act," she said in a statement to reporters at CDU headquarters in Berlin. "We remain committed to the grand coalition."

An hour later, the chancellor herself appeared at the same spot to underline the point. After praising Nahles' "fine character," Merkel said: "We will continue the government's work with all seriousness, and above all greatly conscious of our responsibility. The issues we must solve are plain — in Germany, in Europe and in the rest of the world."

But voices lower down the CDU hierarchy suggest that some in the party feel the time for a new start has arrived. Deputy parliamentary leader Carsten Linnemann told the Funke Media Group that the coalition was at a crossroads: either this "unloved constellation" makes important political progress, or it faces collapse. "The SPD and the CDU/CSU are still in a grand coalition dilemma," he said. "We won't be able to govern and at the same time remain distinguishable for voters on core issues."

Working with Merkel

Olaf Scholz, the vice chancellor and now the most senior SPD politician in Germany, has already ruled out another coalition with the CDU, at least after the next election. "Three grand coalitions in a row would not do democracy in Germany any good," Scholz told the Tagesspiegel newspaper on Saturday, before Nahles' announcement. "No one wants a continuation of the current coalition after 2021 — not the citizens, not the CDU and certainly not us Social Democrats."

 A party conference will be required to elect a new leader, which will take some weeks to organize.

Other leading SPD politicians have warned against making any hasty decisions. In a statement posted on Facebook on Sunday, deputy SPD leader Ralf Stegner called for the party to end internal bickering as it chooses a new leader. "The style of interaction within the SPD in the last days and weeks has not at all been marked by the social-democratic value of solidarity," he wrote. "If we want to win new trust and overcome this grave crisis, this must fundamentally change."

Nahles' resignation follows her party's dire result at the European Parliament elections in May, which saw the SPD come in third behind the CDU and the environmentalist Greens, with only 15.8% of the German vote, an 11-point drop from the last EU election in 2014.

There was plenty of evidence on Sunday of the ugly mood within the party. SPD youth organization leader Kevin Kühnert, an early opponent of the grand coalition and often a left-wing thorn in the leadership's side, tweeted, "Everything begins with a simple observation: Anyone who wants to brave a new beginning with the promise of fairness and solidarity must never, never, never treat others the way we have done in the last few weeks. I am ashamed of it."

SPD's first female leader

Nahles became leader of the SPD in April 2018, having led the party's parliamentary group since September 2017. She is the first woman to head the party, which has roots going back to 1863, making it the oldest existing party in the German parliament.

Since 2013, the SPD has governed in "grand coalitions" with the conservative bloc formed by Merkel's CDU and the Bavarian Christian Social Union. 

But following a historically poor result in the 2017 general election, when the party gained only 20.5% of the national vote, there was intense pressure from the party's grassroots membership and left-wing not to join forces with Merkel again.

Read more: Social Democrats still struggling after Nahles' first 100 days

The widespread perception among political analysts and party members is that governing under Merkel's shadow has only damaged the party, leaving it unable to find a clear political profile. Nevertheless, the SPD was crucial in shaping some of Merkel's government policies, including introducing a national minimum wage.

It was only after the collapse of Merkel's talks with the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens in late 2017 that the SPD leadership opted to help the chancellor form a new government after all, with Nahles one of the chief proponents of the move.

Andrea Nahles singing in the Bundestag

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight