Another Grand Coalition Dilemma for Germany’s Social Democrats

The party could achieve a lot in another left-right government, but they risk being punished by voters.

German Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz, then president of the European Parliament, makes a speech in Brussels, June 19, 2013
German Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz, then president of the European Parliament, makes a speech in Brussels, June 19, 2013 (European Parliament)

Germany’s Social Democrats have opened the door to another left-right pact with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, but many in the party are apprehensive.

Another “grand coalition” may be the only way to form a majority government after Merkel’s talks with the liberal Free Democrats and Greens failed. That gives the Social Democrats leverage.

But they are punished by voters every time they team up with the center-right.

Some victory

In the outgoing government, the Social Democrats were able to realize so many of their priorities, including a national minimum wage, restrictions on temporary work contracts and a reduction in the pension age for blue-collar workers, that the right-wing press called it a “victory” for them, not Merkel.

Yet it were the Social Democrats who slumped to their worst election result since 1949 in September.

Merkel also lost support, but she still leads the largest party.

Could achieve a lot

The Social Democrats could achieve a lot in another grand coalition:

  • Instead of cutting taxes, they could convince the Christian Democrats to use a budget surplus to spend more on infrastructure, hospitals and schools.
  • Instead of raising military spending to meet NATO’s 2-percent target, Germany could invest more in European defense.
  • Unlike the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats have endorsed French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for closer eurozone integration, including creating a European finance minister and harmonizing tax rates.
  • The Social Democrats reject the immigration cap Merkel has promised her right. They want a Canadian-style points system instead to attract more high-skilled migrants. A policy they happen to share with the Free Democrats.

Convincing voters

The challenge would be convincing centrist voters in four years’ time that such accomplishments could not have happened without them.

Merkel is apt at claiming the credit for compromises. The Social Democrats need to do a better job defining themselves. That starts by recognizing they are now a middle-class party, not a workers’ party anymore.