Coalition fighting on all fronts
The debate doing the rounds in the German media is which social democratic frontrunner would do best in the 2013 federal elections. Fancied are former finance minister Peer Steinbrück and the head of the SPD parliamentary group Frank-Walter Steinmeier – with party chairman Sigmar Gabriel seen by many as to erratic for the job as chancellor.
Two years from the election, such political imagination is stimulated by surveys which predict an absolute majority for a new Red-Green coalition between the SPD and the Green party. Such a coalition appears tangible primarily because the Greens are enjoying an all-time high in terms of public support. The SPD, on the other hand, is still not picking up the pace.
However, once the Greens falter again, the SPD could soon face the same strategic dilemma it experienced during the election campaign in 2009, when party leaders were unable to name a plausible coalition option for forming a government. While a Red-Green coalition had become unlikely in the polls and the SPD had ruled out a coalition with the Left party, the favored ‘traffic light’ coalition with the Greens and the FDP was denied by the liberals. This strategic dilemma was one of the main reasons for the SPD´s historic defeat. According to a survey undertaken in 2008, almost three quarters of German voters find coalition statements ‘very important’ or ‘important’ for their individual electoral decision.
Today, the situation is further aggravated by the fact that both the FDP and the Left party are in an extremely unstable condition, both lacking leadership and programmatic orientation, both being torn apart by inner-party disputes and rivalries.
Nonetheless, the SPD has no choice but to think about opening up avenues for three-party-coalitions, strengthening cooperative relationships with the smaller FDP and Left party – even if it only pays out in the medium term. This imperative is a direct consequence of the transformation of the traditional German four-party-system to a five-party-system with the rise of the Left party since 2005.
For a prudent strategy of rapprochement, the SPD should distinguish between public communication and acting behind the scenes. Officially, the SPD must radiate unquestionable optimism that both partners in the ‘core alliance’ will be strong enough to form a Red-Green government, which is, by the way, by far the most preferred constellation among both red and green voters. But at the same time, party strategists should try to create spaces outside the sphere of party politics, where channels of discussion can be opened, common ground can be found and information exchanged.
Currently, only a few of these channels exist. There is a group of left-wing social democrats meeting regularly with members of the Left party, whereas contacts with the FDP are mainly confined to meetings among parliamentarians. One way to fill this gap could be to revert to existing progressive bipartisan thinktanks that would initiate, organise and moderate such processes below the threshold of media awareness. Concerning this matter, it is important to also build relationships between opposite ends of the political spectrum, i.e. conservative social democrats meeting with members of the Left party and left-wing social democrats staying in touch with liberals.
However, the SPD must bear in mind that in order to form three-party-coalitions, first and foremost it must tighten relationships with the Green party. As a conservative-green coalition has become realistic, a lot of Greens would prefer this option to a strenuous three-party-formation. Jeering at the Greens for being a ‘latte-macchiato-party’, as Sigmar Gabriel did a while ago, is definitely the wrong approach.
Der Text erschien zunächst im Rahmen einer regelmäßigen Kolumne bei unserem Partner-Think Tank Poliy Network hier.