Crumbling Big-Tent Parties-German Politics Enters Era of Instability

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Germany’s big-tent parties have ensured political stability for decades. But they are rapidly losing power and influence. The Social Democrats are witnessing an open rebellion against party leadership while many conservatives are beginning to doubt Merkel’s abilities. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

Early Tuesday afternoon, a small group met for a closed-door meeting at the headquarters of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Berlin. The meeting was supposed to be about a formality, but it was in fact about the very future of the party.

Martin Schulz, still the center-left party’s chair at the time, was present, as were six of his deputies, the general secretary, the treasurers, Lower Saxony Governor Stephan Weil and, of course, Andrea Nahles, the party’s parliamentary whip. The group wanted to commence the previously announced change in party leadership — former chancellor candidate Schulz was to step down, with Nahles taking over as the provisional head of the SPD until her planned installation as chair at an upcoming party conference. The hope was to restore calm in the party.

But it didn’t work. Resistance cropped up everywhere. SPD lawyers argued that it wasn’t legal for Nahles to serve as the party’s interim head. Emails from furious party members began flooding into SPD headquarters. On social media, members of the party began cursing the stubborn party establishment. And three state chapters opposed the plan outright.

It set off a wave of the kind seen often recently, an insurgency from below against those at the top, the party grassroots against its leadership.

As a result, the group gathered at SPD headquarters was troubled. But Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg and an influential SPD functionary, wanted to push the plan through nonetheless. Scholz does not like to go on the defensive and he believed that giving in to the protestations coming from below would be a sign of weakness. Party leaders, he said, needed to exert leadership. They couldn’t allow their actions to be dictated by the party base.

Power Struggle

Nahles agreed. The pair was concerned that withdrawing their plan would merely encourage critics to take further action. It was, in other words, the birth of a power struggle between the SPD’s party base and its leadership.

But there was plenty of opposition within the party’s national executive committee as well. And ultimately, Nahles and Scholz backed down, proposing instead to make Scholz the provisional head the SPD first before later handing the reins to Nahles. The executive committee supported the move and Nahles was left to spin the solution to the media as proof that the party was leaving its strife behind.

In actuality, though, it was a defeat for Nahles. Yet again, she was caught entirely by surprise by the sentiment in a party that she believes to know so well.

The fact is that the party’s grassroots are angry, and their fury is no longer exclusively focused on plans to join Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in yet another grand coalition. The upcoming party vote on that coalition agreement is in the process of transforming into a vote on the SPD’s leadership and political culture. Party leaders in Berlin are at risk of losing control — as though their link with the party base has been broken.

Western Democracies in Crisis

And this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to the SPD. The conservative Christian Democrats are also seeing the authority of their once all-powerful chancellor being eroded, with discontent and the urge for change growing in the party base.

Germany finds itself oscillating between a longing for stability and the desire for upheaval. Surveys show that support for both the CDU and the SPD has plunged, to the point that, were elections held today, it isn’t even certain that a grand coalition would have a majority.

Suddenly, upheaval is everywhere. Within the SPD, everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, with a large number taking aim at acting Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. Above all, the party base is in open revolt against the leadership. Within the Christian Democrats, meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel’s authority is melting away. The Merkel era is drawing to a close and the upheavals caused by her efforts to modernize her party are now breaking into the open.

The country is slipping into a crisis and Germany, the bastion of stability in Europe, is becoming politically unstable. And every month the country continues to be run by a provisional government is another month that Germany doesn’t have a voice in Europe or the world.

This is by no means purely a domestic development. The party system is currently being turn upside down across Western democracies. Owing to Germany’s prosperity and the sedative power of its chancellor, it long appeared that Merkel had been spared by the international development. But the torturous wrangling to create a new government has now dashed that hope.

In France, the two parties that once dominated the country now hold only just over a quarter of the seats in the national parliament. In Italy, the Five Star Movement, which doesn’t seem to stand for much other than the desire for change and its loathing of the status quo and is led by a former TV comedian, appears to have strong chances of winning the election there in March.

A Radical Loss of Support

In Germany, the old establishment parties are also struggling to maintain political stability. Combined support for the SPD and the conservatives has dropped from over 90 percent at the beginning of the 1970s to just 49 percent today. Their decline, which had previously been a slow and creeping process, has rapidly accelerated in recent months.

The party system in Germany is splintering, with seven parties now represented in national parliament. When it is no longer possible to form governments with two or three parties, it will necessarily become increasingly difficult to build stable governments. Italy already provides an example of what that can mean. The country is constantly swapping out its prime minister and holding snap elections. Italy has had almost 30 prime ministers and a total of 61 cabinets since 1946. In the same period, Germany has been governed by eight chancellors.

At this point, the crisis has become an existential one for the SPD. Even if the party becomes part of the next government, that won’t guarantee that the bleeding will stop — that much has been demonstrated by developments in other European countries. The party leadership has lost its authority and many state chapters are in chaos — including the party’s most important chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Party discipline is also waning, with SPD parliamentarians increasingly defying leadership. The youth wing of the Social Democrats, the Jusos, have even been making headlines in the international press with their open rebellion against the party’s plan to join Merkel’s government. And three obscure local politicians have announced that they will fight against Nahles’ installation as party boss.

Manuela Schwesig, the party’s deputy chair, has described the situation as “days of chaos.” A member of the national executive committed said: “It’s a nightmare.”

Within the Christian Democrats, the process began later and has been less radical. Nevertheless, with the end of Merkel’s calming dominance in the party, the battle over the CDU’s future direction is growing ever louder. The sense is palpable all across the party that it is facing questions about its own future. Feb. 7, 2018, the day that the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats reached an agreement to go into government together again, could prove to be a historical turning point, as the “end of the CDU as a big-tent party,” warns Carsten Linnemann, the head of the party’s wing representing the powerful lobby of small- to mid-sized businesses.

That goes a long way toward explaining the intensity with which the debate is currently being carried out within the CDU. When a politician like Paul Ziemiak, the head of the party’s youth wing, calls for the party’s renewal, it generally has to do with the divvying up of political appointments. Really, though, it’s the question of whether the CDU can maintain its status as a big-tent party.

Massive Distrust

The SPD, meanwhile, has become a cautionary tale. “There is now considerable distrust by society against the people at the top,” says CDU deputy head Ralf Stegner. “Ongoing social transformations are being mirrored within the major national parties,” he warns. “That’s why we need a new sensitivity and we need to find the right balance between asserting leadership and more seriously taking the party base into consideration.”

The distrust and displeasure toward the parties’ leadership is massive. The worst, argues Edgar Franke, a member of parliament with the conservative wing of the SPD, are all the canned statements coming out of party headquarters. “The people want politicians with rough edges and flaws. They don’t want robots.” Meanwhile, former Munich Mayor Christian Ude asks, “Does the SPD executive really want to test its members’ threshold for pain?”

The party base is retaliating against the hermetic leadership style at the top of the party and against the backroom deals. Party members want transparency and a voice. The membership in the two parties is also more diverse than it was in the past. Among the tens of thousands of new members the SPD registered in the last 12 months, there are many, many young people who want to see a totally different political culture emerge. They grew up in in a world in which the new media sparks new voices within a matter of hours and in which authorities have been weakened because fewer people are listening to them.

It’s no longer an issue of political discontent. On the contrary, voter turnout is increasing again and people are taking an interest in politics in Germany. The problem is that trust in the parties is shrinking.

Under the German constitution, the political parties are there to help form political policies that express the will of the people. That’s their job, but it’s obvious that fewer and fewer people have the impression that they are fulfilling that mandate.

Identity Loss

Members of both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats are deeply unnerved. The long journey to the political center made by both parties has robbed them of their respective leftist and conservative identities. They lack unique traits, differences in political views and reasons to debate each other. Many members now want to finally get back to a point where they actually know what it is their party stands for. They long for clarity and determination.

The leaders of these parties in Berlin are sapped and exhausted. Many members are craving a reboot. The parties are on the cusp of a generational shift, with the departure of older politicians. The problem is that the people who are now slated to take over the parties don’t necessarily embody that fresh start. Andrea Nahles, although 16 years younger than Merkel, has been politically active for just as long as the chancellor. At the time Merkel joined the Democratic Awakening party in then-East Germany in 1989, Nahles was founding a local chapter of the SPD in Weiler, the village where she grew up.

Discord is driving a wedge through both parties. For the SPD, regardless how the members vote on the resolution on whether to join a grand coalition, it will be a nearly impossible task to reconcile the opponents and proponents of governing with Merkel. And within the Christian Democrats, the conservatives who have aligned with rising party star Jens Spahn and the party modernizers surrounding Merkel are drifting ever further apart.

Merkel Tries to Plug the Dike

On Valentine’s Day, Angela Merkel found herself at the indoor tennis courts in the town of Demmin in northern Germany, standing between a brass band and a sign advertising construction material recycling. She wasn’t there to celebrate romance, however. It was, after all, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the day on which Germany’s political parties traditionally gather to say the kinds of things that normally get edited out of their more sober political speeches.

Merkel, though, had brought along a poem:

“It isn’t the time to bash your head through the wall, rather it’s the time to keep cool heads for all.”

If it was up to the chancellor, in other words, the CDU would merely continue to stay the course.

But it’s not just up to the party’s chairperson, particularly after Merkel, according to the widespread interpretation within the CDU, rolled over and played dead in the just-finished coalition negotiations with the SPD. Despite having received the most votes in the election last September, the CDU will not get any of the four most important cabinet portfolios: the Labor Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry. And when Merkel said on Wednesday, “Many have complained that we will no longer have control of the Finance Ministry,” audible groaning filled the room. “Yes!” said a delegate from the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. And she was echoed by those seated at her table: “Yes, yes, yes!” Soon other tables joined the chorus and before long, delegates throughout the room were saying “yes, yes, yes!”

Merkel ignored it. But the grumbling continued even after she had changed the subject to talk about the war in Syria.

‘Back to What We Actually Are’

“That wasn’t what I had expected,” says Johannes Golz, the 19-year-old head of the CDU’s youth chapter on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom, after the chancellor’s speech had ended. “Merkel is stripping away our conservative profile.” He says that during door-to-door campaigning ahead of last fall’s election, he found himself unable to explain what his party stood for, particularly on issues like refugee policy and gay marriage.

The CDU, Golz believes, can only be saved by undergoing a significant renewal. “Young people must finally be given an opportunity so that we can find our way back to what we really are.”

Merkel was aware of the mood among the party base even before her appearance in Demmin. She knew that the distribution of ministries, negotiated on the final night of coalition talks with the SPD and the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, would not be popular. But she was surprised by the intensity of the anger.

Old Merkel antagonists now believe that the time has come to settle scores from several years ago. Roland Koch, the former governor of Hesse whose rise to national influence was slowed and ultimately stopped by Merkel, complained recently that the CDU showed that it would accept anything just to form a government. Friedrich Merz, another erstwhile CDU up-and-comer whose political career was shortened by Merkel, said the party had been humiliated. Volker Rühe, German defense minister for six years under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, complained that the CDU’s negotiating strategy was disastrous.

The fact that those three would rejoin the public debate after having remained silent for so long shows just how precarious they believe Merkel’s current position to be. More dangerous for Merkel, however, is the fact that many active politicians on both the federal and state level have added their voices to the chorus.

It’s a discussion that began with the refugee crisis and has refused to die down, in part because of the rise of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to the right of the CDU. And there are two sides to the debate. Merkel is convinced that the party must continue down the path of modernization that she embarked on so as to make it attractive to as broad a swath of voters as possible. She is opposed to polarization because she is convinced it isn’t beneficial to the CDU.

A Wave of Outrage

On the other side, though, is a strong faction within the party that would like to see less consensus and more conflict in the political debate. They believe the AfD managed to secure seats in German parliament in part because the CDU no longer has anything to offer its core voters on the conservative wing.

One of the most prominent adherents to this point of view is Jens Spahn, 37, and Merkel would like to prevent him from gaining traction. Now that it has come time to begin divvying up positions in the next government, the chancellor would like to prevent him from landing in a post from which he can lob criticism at her. It’s not likely, in other words, that Merkel will hand him a cabinet portfolio.

But the question has now become whether Merkel can afford to skip over Spahn. After the coalition negotiations with the SPD had concluded, a list of potential CDU cabinet appointees, apparently from the Chancellery, began circulating — and the omission of Spahn’s name on the list triggered a wave of outrage within the party. It has become clear that any Merkel attempt to promote other prominent CDU conservatives to the cabinet, such as Rhineland-Palatinate CDU leader Julia Klöckner, won’t be sufficient. Spahn has become symbolic of the conflict within Germany’s conservatives.

“Jens Spahn is a name that binds important constituencies to the CDU,” says Volker Bouffier, the current governor of Hesse and a supporter of Merkel. He too thinks Merkel would be well advised to include her adversaries in the next government. And Spahn even seemed to have provided the chancellor some guidance on where he might fit in. In his own Ash Wednesday speech, delivered in far-away Fellbach on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Spahn spoke passionately and at length about schools and education.

Still, it seems unlikely that Merkel will be able to quiet the grumbling within the CDU with just a couple of political appointments. Her authority has eroded far beyond that. “We have to realize that some people don’t feel represented,” says Thomas Strobl, head of the CDU state chapter in Baden-Württemberg. “That is evidenced by the rise of the AfD.” The CDU, he says, needs a new platform “to clearly define our positions and the direction in which we want to go.” Normally, such debates are irrelevant for day-to-day political operations. But for the CDU, they could be decisive in determining how long it remains a big-tent party.

The SPD has survived numerous crises, but this time, the recipes usually used to get things back under control aren’t working. The accusation that SPD leaders determine their party’s future in smoky backrooms likewise isn’t new. But instead of quiet frustration, which has been the traditional response, open rebellion has broken out this time around. The political behavior displayed by party leaders, says Keven Kühnert, head of the party’s youth wing, “is appalling.”

‘Clumsy Behavior’

SPD leaders have nobody to blame but themselves: The policy reversals of the past few months have come back to haunt them. First, SPD leadership insisted the party would never join another coalition with Merkel, a position reiterated after the chancellor’s first attempt to form a government failed — only to reverse course and agree to form another coalition with Merkel. That has caused trust in senior party officials to evaporate. Worse than that, however, is the fact that their primary concern ultimately seemed to be what post they would get once the government was constituted.

“When I try to explain the results of the coalition negotiations, which are very good, fewer and fewer people listen because the debate over appointments overshadows everything,” says Bernd Westphal, the SPD fraction’s economic spokesman in the German parliament. “Party leaders have demanded that the personnel debate come to an end, but they keep retriggering it with their own clumsy behavior.”

Such as the announcement that Andrea Nahles would be taking over from Martin Schulz as party chair. The news arrived just as SPD negotiators were gathering a week ago Wednesday to grant their final approval of the coalition agreement negotiated with the CDU and CSU: Nahles was to become party leader, the message on their mobile phones read, and Schulz would take over the Foreign Ministry. Most of the SPD negotiators present were “stunned,” says one of those present. Very few knew the announcement was coming.

“What the heck?” deputy SPD leader Ralf Stegner said to the other negotiators. “That’s going to be a problem.”

The announcement made it clear that Nahles and Schulz had been talking about a leadership reshuffle since the party conference in Bonn on Jan. 21. Publicly, Schulz, Scholz and Nahles had been insisting for weeks that political positions would only be divvied up at the very end of the process. In truth, though, a small handful of senior SPD leaders had long since been discussing exactly that. Only at the very end of the coalition negotiations were a few other SPD leaders notified of the secret leadership discussions.

Only very few realized that the personnel change might become a problem. SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil warned Schulz to be careful, saying that if he joined Merkel’s cabinet, his credibility might take a hit. Schulz, after all, had pledged that he would never become a part of a Merkel-led government.

But by then, the decision had become more or less public. And in the SPD executive committee meeting a short time later, there was no resistance to speak of. Everyone was completely exhausted from the overnight negotiations and suffering from sleep deprivation. Many had also fallen ill. At this point, Nahles and Schulz hadn’t yet realized the hornets’ nest they had kicked. Nahles also threw her support behind Schulz publicly, saying he would become foreign minister “because that is what he represents in our party with heart and soul.”

It didn’t take long, though, for the first insurrection to appear. In many state chapters, led by North Rhine-Westphalia, Schulz’s plans triggered anger and indignation and the mood was even worse in regional chapters. Irritation was likewise widespread within the party’s parliamentary group in Berlin. Thousands of emails began pouring into SPD headquarters.

Adamently Opposed

It soon became clear that the debate threatened to overshadow the upcoming vote among all SPD members as to whether to approve the coalition deal. As a result, just 48 hours after the announcement, Nahles and Schulz agreed in a telephone conversation that Schulz would not take a cabinet position after all.

Despite the anger, nobody really harbors any doubts that Nahles has the ability to lead the SPD. But she soon found herself faced with the next controversy. Would SPD members learn prior to the coalition approval vote who party leadership intended to appoint to cabinet positions?

Nahles and the entire SPD leadership committee are adamantly opposed to making the names of potential cabinet ministers public before the party base votes on the coalition deal. They argue that doing so would distract voters from the details of the deal and once again put personnel questions in the foreground.

In fact, though, Nahles and Scholz are likely interested in avoiding a discussion over the most delicate question of all: What to do with Sigmar Gabriel? Neither want him to remain German foreign minister, a position he has leveraged into his current status as the most popular SPD politician in the country. Many normal SPD members, though, are happy with the job he has done and want him to stay in the position, as do many Social Democratic parliamentarians.

“He has proven that he can do it,” says parliamentarian Bernd Westphal. “I would like to see Sigmar Gabriel continue as foreign minister.” Furthermore, Westphal says, he has years of experience in the cabinet. “We shouldn’t dispense with someone like that.”

The End of the SPD as a Big Tent Party

If designated SPD head Nahles continues to remain silent on the issue, it will begin to look like she has learned nothing. As though she still hasn’t understood that the party would like a different style of leadership and that members are tired of being informed of decisions after they have already been made.

It seems likely that pressure on the party leadership will continue to increase — to the point that they might have to buckle yet again. For Nahles, that would represent yet another loss of authority. “It would be the worst thing that could happen to us,” says a member of the leadership committee.

The fate of the republic, it would seem, is now dependent on the results of a vote among the 463,000 SPD members. It is possible that the party will manage to get its act together. After all, with public opinion polls indicating that support for the party has fallen to a paltry 16 percent, new elections could end in disaster. It would mark their end as a big-tent party.

But even if the coalition with Merkel’s conservatives does come about, Germany’s political party system will not return to the certainties that once defined it. And that means that the country is entering a phase of uncertainty.

The stability of the country’s big-tent parties was a guarantee of a stable political landscape. Their ability to integrate a wide variety of political opinions prevented the radical fringes from growing too strong. That reality, though, has now come to an end. Cool heads, to borrow Merkel’s plea in Demmin, are few and far between.

By Nicola Abé, Christiane Hoffmann, Veit Medick, Ralf Neukirch and Christoph Schult

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