As a local chairwoman of Germany's center-left Social Democrats in the traditional heartland of Germany’s working-class left, Janina Kleist does not typically defy the party line.
But when it comes to the proposal to form another "grand coalition" between her SPD party and Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the young mother from Dortmund, in the Ruhr Valley, is breaking from her party’s leadership, which is pressing to ratify the deal.
If enough of the SPD base says “no” instead, it could herald new elections in Germany and prolonged instability at the epicenter of Europe. “For the country we have to say ‘no’ because we are losing more and more voters,” Ms. Kleist says. “The SPD needs to be there in four years. It is our responsibility to be a party that people can vote for.”
Germany's robust economy and political stability have served as a cornerstone for the European project, and Germany’s 2017 parliamentary election was supposed to stand as a strong rebuke to the political maelstrom assailing Western democracies. Instead, Berlin has been without an official government five months after political fracturing led the two major political parties to their worst results since 1949.
The rest of Europe has sighed relief that the German establishment was able to get beyond vast differences to form an alliance – unthinkable, for example, in America’s divisive political world. But it’s left many here feeling that it is precisely a lack of polarization that is at the root of German political uncertainty. And many Germans, across the political spectrum but especially on the left, say they are willing to forgo short-term stability to fend off growing disillusionment with the political center.
“I can understand that from the outside it may look like a stable coalition and a good thing for Europe,” says Sinem Tasan-Funke, the vice president of the Berlin branch of Jusos, the youth wing of the SPD that has led a movement called NoGroKo against the “grand coalition.” “I have a great sense of responsibility for Europe, and I think in the long term what we are doing, the anti GroKo movement, is more responsible. In the long run it is better for two big parties to form governments apart from each other. Shrinking big parties in Germany will not grant stability to Europe.”
A marriage of necessity
Much of the political drama has played out within the SPD as it decides whether or not to join Merkel’s party for the next four years. But a sense of frustration over blurred ideology under the last “grand coalition,” between 2013 and 2017, has cost all mainstream parties voters. In the CDU, many complain the party has lost its conservative roots, whether over immigration or energy policy. While the party voted overwhelmingly in favor of a grand coalition today, the process has left many frustrated by negotiations that saw the SPD score the ministries of labor, finance, and foreign affairs.
“The SPD members feel very insecure since they have lost so many votes during the last elections. But CDU adherents, they are not happy either,” says Jürgen Falter, a political science professor at Mainz University. “The coalition is not a marriage of love, it is only a marriage of necessity.”
He says it would be irrational for the SPD to vote against the deal, given that they gained considerable ground against the CDU. He expects they won’t.
The SPD leadership has tried to convince voters that it will become a new leftist force in an upcoming government – a win-win that also brings stability to the country and Europe even as polarization erodes a sense of democracy elsewhere. Martin Schultz, the SPD candidate who alienated voters by ruling out another “grand coalition” with Merkel and then performing a U-turn, stepped down from the party earlier this month, tapping Andrea Nahles to take his place. “We will not do a runner in this government. We will make our own policy proposals. We will consciously stand up to Mrs. Merkel,” Ms. Nahles said before SPD voting began Feb. 20. Results will be declared March 4.
It is a recognition that Germans are demanding more ideology, especially the youth. The NoGroKo movement bears some resemblance to the left-wing revolt in Britain that catapulted hardliner Jeremy Corbyn to the head of the Labour Party. The SPD has seen membership increase by some 25,000 since the beginning of the year, introducing a wild card into the upcoming SPD ballot among 464,000 members.
The rise of the AfD
Many in Germany want the deal ratified. They fear new elections would empower the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which scored 13 percent in the September race and made it into parliament for the first time, especially since voters are angry that politicians have taken so long to form a government in the first place. In a poll last week, they scored higher than the SPD for the first time.
In either scenario, the AfD platform is bound to get larger. Under a “grand coalition,” they become the main opposition. The party, mostly known as an anti-immigrant force, has more recently appealed to more moderate but frustrated voters, selling itself as the only one with ideological distinction in Germany today. Andreas Urbanek, who leads the local branch of the AfD in Dortmund, says his party is “just starting to take off,” because it offers an alternative. “It is distinguishable from the established parties," he says. "That is our main selling point.”
The AfD gained considerable ground everywhere, including 10 percent in Dortmund, but nowhere more so than in eastern Germany. In Frankfurt an der Oder, which sits on the border with Poland, the AfD won 21 percent of the vote. Martin Patzelt, a national lawmaker from the CDU representing the district, says that might not be a bad thing as it brings more frank talk to German politics.
Mr. Patzelt confesses that he didn’t want to run for office in the September race. But when Alexander Gauland, a co-founder of the AfD, announced he’d be a candidate in this district, Patzelt felt he had no choice. "I'm 70 years old, but when I heard that the AfD was trying to take over my district, that was a huge problem,” he says.
His party did come in first place, with 27 percent of the vote. “But now that the AfD is in parliament, we can openly have debates, which I find good. They can reassure many of their voters and introduce more into the public debate. That’s important for gaining new insights, also for the CDU,” he says. “The AfD reminds us how the people feel and think.”
‘There are a lot of fears’
Germans seem to be yearning for more honest introspection, even if it puts them in an unfamiliar place. It’s part of a wider struggle of social democracy across Europe amid changing economies and communities.
In Cologne, Sophie Passmann, a comedian who writes a column on politics and society for Spiegel Daily, says her party has aligned with the educated middle class on the left. But she says it has failed to recognize fears among the traditional working class, including of migration. “We are pretending that every member is automatically someone who says, ‘open the gates, bring them in, we will support them,’” she says. “We have to acknowledge that they are scared, and that they are not willing to support everyone.”
Says Ms. Passmann: “That is hard to admit.”
Ms. Tasan-Funke says the anguished politics in Germany since September clearly show that the political establishment is out of touch with demands on the ground.
“There are a lot of fears on both sides, that new elections will bring worse results than we already have,” she says. “But I think you shouldn’t listen to fear when making decisions that are that important.”