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Sidelined Social Democrats

Latschan Thomas Kommentarbild App
Thomas Latschan
July 4, 2018

Left to watch its conservative partners feud over German refugee policy, and nearly bring down the government, the SPD faces a deal it doesn't want but has no choice but to sign on to, writes DW's Thomas Latschan.

An SPD flag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

These days, you can almost feel sorry for Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). For weeks, party leader Andrea Nahles and her fellow SPD members watched as their coalition partners, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), feuded over Germany's approach toward asylum-seekers. The Social Democrats cautioned both sides to be reasonable and warned that the coalition government could collapse.

The SPD even presented its very own five-point plan for processing asylum-seekers. But all their efforts and words of caution were drowned out by the noise from the messy CDU-vs.-CSU fight. And then, when Germany's government actually looked like it was on the brink of collapse, and many had begun losing faith in the country's political system altogether, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and rebellious Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) finally reached a last-minute compromise.

For their part, the Social Democrats are simply expected to consent to whatever the conservative Christian parties agree.

Social Democrats face a dilemma

Once again, the SPD finds itself in an awkward situation. If it agrees to the CDU-CSU deal, the Social Democrats break the promise made in the coalition agreement to seek a European solution to the refugee situation. While the SPD has consented to asylum-seeker reception centers, it rejects closed, fenced-in institutions. They have reiterated this position and Nahles underscored it once more today.

But if the SPD rejects the CDU-CSU deal, it would effectively prolong Germany's governmental crisis. Only this time, it's the Social Democrats who would bear the blame for jeopardizing the coalition. Fresh elections would become necessary should the government actually collapse. That would come at a highly inconvenient time for the SPD, which has seen its approval ratings steadily drop.

DW editor Thomas Latschan
DW editor Thomas Latschan

That leaves Nahels forced to walk a political tightrope to satisfy both her own party members as well as voters. A daunting challenge: Left-leaning Social Democrats — and most high-ranking party functionaries and representatives — flat out reject the CDU-CSU deal, while a majority of German voters — including SPD supporters — favor a tougher stance on asylum-seekers, as envisioned by the CDU and CSU. Can the SPD plot a course that makes everyone happy without selling out?

It looks like a tragedy in the making. No matter what the Social Democrats chose, no option will spare them from grief.

Read more: In bid for political survival, Angela Merkel takes refugein Fortress Europe

History repeating itself

It's not long ago that the SPD faced a similarly serious dilemma. After the last parliamentary elections, the party leader at the time, Martin Schulz, boldly proclaimed the SPD would not join a new coalition government under Chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership. But when coalition talks failed among the Green party, the CDU, CSU and business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP),  Germany's Social Democrats suddenly had to step up to the plate. They needed to decide whether to risk fresh elections or renew the coalition government with Chancellor Merkel after all.

Ultimately, they chose the latter. But many SPD members who voted for renewing the grand coalition did so not out of conviction, but because they deemed it in Germany's best interest — and because they (rightly) feared fresh elections could cost them more votes than they had already lost.

So it is to be expected that — once again — the SPD will join forces with the CDU and CSU. Slight modifications will be made to the asylum-seeker deal, but, at the end of the day, Nahles will have to eat what's put in front of her, whether she likes it or not, because it's her party's least politically toxic option at the moment.

But it will also further cement the widespread view that the Social Democrats are consistently inconsistent and keep breaking their promises. And it means the party's shrinking base will become even smaller still. Despite the party's previous mistakes, you almost have to feel sorry for the SPD. But pity has never won any votes.