Among the most ancient institutions in the world of Western democracy is the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The history of the party—which was banned in the 19th century by Bismarck and in the 20th by Hitler—is also the history of the long struggle for a stable system of self-government east of the Rhine. With the announcement February 7 of a new coalition agreement between the SPD and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, the SPD looks set to return to government. But this week’s headlines obscure the deep conflicts within the party, and the dangers German democracy faces today.
German political life is in a disorderly state thanks to the rise of the extreme right. The nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) received nearly 13 percent of the vote in last September’s elections, and the country has been without a government ever since. You could tell the story of these four months without saying much about the AfD, and many commentators have tried. But the truth is that the far right is the specter haunting German politics today.
Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), allied with their Bavarian sister party, the even more conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), were the nominal winners of the September elections. They got 32.9 percent of the vote, while the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) got 10.7 percent. Added to the AfD’s 12.6 percent, a clear majority of German voters—56.2 percent—chose to take the country rightward. But since none of the mainstream parties would enter a coalition with the AfD, the CDU/CSU and the FDP decided to try for a coalition with the Green Party, which had won 8.9 percent. (Germans call this a “Jamaica coalition” because the colors of the parties—black, yellow, and green—are the same as those of the Jamaican flag.)
The Jamaica talks collapsed in November, in large part because the FDP and CSU—afraid they would lose even more voters to the far right—wanted tougher restrictions on refugees than the Greens would accept. On that crucial issue, at least, the shadow of the AfD, even though the party wasn’t in the talks at all, seemed to define what was possible, and what was politically just too dangerous.
The SPD was the clear loser of the elections, managing a score of only 20.5 percent—its worst result since before World War II. The SPD leader and candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, insisted throughout the fall that his party would not join the government this time, having just spent the past four years in a “grand coalition” with Merkel’s conservatives. But once the Jamaica talks failed, Schulz changed his mind. Here, too, the AfD—technically shut out by all the other parties—played a crucial role, because if the SPD did not agree to go back into government, and Merkel could form no other coalition, there might be new elections. The SPD would then face the catastrophic possibility of being surpassed by the AfD. (In the main tracking poll released February 6, the AfD was at 15 percent and the SPD at only 17 percent; other recent polls show a wider gap—between five and seven points, but still uncomfortably close.)