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Critical rank-and-file

Greta Hamann / asbOctober 23, 2013

Germany's Social Democrats are set to begin coalition talks with incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats. However, many SPD members are unhappy about forming an alliance with the CDU.

GettyImages 182027849 Chairman of the Social Democratic Party Sigmar Gabriel addresses reporters after an extraordinary party convention at the SPD headquarters in Berlin on September 27, 2013, ahead of coalition talks with German Chancellor's Christian Democratic Union. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

"Let the coalition talks begin," is what the Social Democrats (SPD) recently announced on their website. But the backlash from SPD voters and the party's rank-and-file has already begun. Party leader Sigmar Gabriel is facing a range of criticism on social networks, like Facebook. "This is betrayal," some online commenters said, while others called on him to "resign." One disappointed SPD member said coalition talks would start, "but without my membership fee."

These days, Social Democrat websites are filled with opprobrium, ranging from harsh insults to pure disappointment. Many SPD party members are unhappy about a possible coalition with the conservative alliance of Merkel's CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU.

For some, the intense reactions might come as a surprise; after all, there was plenty of approval for coalition talks at the recent SPD party convention. From 229 delegates, only 31 voted against coalition talks, while two abstained. Judging by those numbers, around 85 percent of the SPD membership can imagine a coalition with the chancellor's party.

Members to vote on coalition agreement

It's the first time that the party's leadership panel has asked its rank-and-file for permission to conduct coalition talks. The panel consists of elected delegates of SPD districts and the party executive. Moreover, the scheduled vote within the SPD on the coalition agreement is unprecedented.

SPD head Sigmar Gabriel on 20.10.2013 after a party convention in Berlin Foto: Hannibal/dpa
SPD head Sigmar Gabriel is facing a lot of criticism from inside for considering a grand coalition with Merkel's CDUImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Around 470,000 members will be able to vote yes or no on the coalition agreement after negotiations are over. "We want to show that a membership with the SPD also means that members have a say," Gabriel said in a television interview. "If people join parties these days, then they don't want to be contributing just membership fees. They want to participate in decisions on which direction the party is going," he said.

Calls for coalition with Left Party or Green Party

Despite these new rights, many SPD members feel cheated. "On the outside you're all for members having a say, but on the inside you're already setting the agenda. That's not fair towards the members and that will definitely be held against you," wrote the chairman of a local party chapter in southern Germany on Gabriel's Facebook site.

Many other commenters agree, saying party members wished the SPD had at least thought about a coalition with the Left Party, or the Green Party, or at least made this a possibility for a ballot vote. True cooperation looks different, according to the comments.

Thomas Asböck, deputy head of the SPD's youth organization in the state of Bavaria, doesn't make a secret of his preferred coalition. The logos of the Left Party and the Green Party decorate his Facebook profile together with the SPD logo. Asböck doesn't feel represented by the party leadership and differentiates between "us", namely the local unions, and "those up there," the party leadership.

Election campaign volunteers of the German Social Democrats (SPD) distribute flags and campaign material shortly before the arrival of SPD chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrueck at an SPD election rally on September 16, 2013 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The SPD needs the support of its members - not just for distributing election campaign materialImage: Getty Images

"SPD instrumentalizes its members"

Political scientist Marc Debus told DW that the SPD has several agendas when it comes to the planned member poll. "The SPD leadership knows that it has to better include its members in order for them not to run off frustrated," he said.

At the same time, the leadership instrumentalizes its members, according to Debus. "The pending membership poll fosters the negotiation position of the SPD towards the CDU." The poll has a strategic and tactical background, Debus said. "The SPD leadership doesn't do this because it wants to give more power to its base."

Veith Lemmen, head of the SPD's youth organization in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, does not feel used. But he also doubts whether topics that are important to the SPD will be implemented in a grand coalition. He told DW that the SPD youth worked very hard for political change and now also want to see that change.

According to Lemmen, a decision regarding a possible grand coalition however, has not yet been made in North Rhine Westphalia. "We will give our vote based on the negotiated coalition agreement," he said.

Portrait of Veith Lemmen, head of the SPD youth in the state of North Rhine Westphalia via Greta Hamann, DW
Lemmen hasn't decided yet whether he will vote for or against a grand coaltitonImage: Juso-Landesverband NRW

Whether or not the poll is simply a gesture, Debus thinks the SPD will opt for a grand coalition in the end, despite loud protests within the party. After all, the result of the rank-and-file ballot is binding.

And if the majority of members vote against a coalition with the CDU and CSU, then the SPD leadership would face large changes. The future of the entire party leadership would be at stake and most likely there would be snap elections in Germany. And, according to polls, those would not turn out in the SPD's favor.