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Germany: Is the Grand Coalition coming to an end?

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In the election of the two-person, one female, one male, leadership of the SPD, the party's members voted against the representatives of the party establishment, the finance minister and vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz and Bundestag member Klara Geywitz. In a second ballot, a duo of Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken received 114,995 votes against 98,246 votes for Scholz/Geywitz. However, only some 46 percent of members voted, and this points to the near-death state of the party. Perhaps the vote for Walter-Borjans/Esken could be seen as evidence of a last flicker of life in the party.

The result represents a slap in the face for the entire leadership of the SPD. After all, almost all the "prominent" and "experienced" social democrats spoke out in favour of Scholz/Geywitz. Almost nobody in the cabinet kept to the internal "agreement" not to make any election recommendations. On the contrary, almost all of them favoured Scholz/Geywitz. The parliamentary group was even more clearly opposed to Walter-Borjans/Esken. For these forces, the election was not only about the party leadership, but also about the survival of the Grand Coalition with the conservative Christian Democrats, CDU, into which they had manoeuvred the party after the party's devastating defeat in the 2017 Bundestag elections.

The omens were never good for Angela Merkel's third CDU/CSU/SPD coalition and it may now be in its last weeks. The crisis of the CDU itself, as well as a possible reorientation of the SPD, make new elections more likely in 2020.

The bourgeois media had been very kind to Vice Chancellor Scholz in recent weeks, even welcoming his tax department's investigation of the rich. Numerous bourgeois experts and journalists even gave the Grand Coalition a "social democratic signature" - as if the SPD had implemented politics in the interests of the working class, unnoticed by the public.

Despite all the whitewashing, the current government team and leadership of the SPD lost. The election is tantamount to a break in the party: the leadership that helped shape federal governments since 1998 and was responsible for the Yugoslav war and Agenda 2010 policy was finally voted out of office. Questions remain, however: Will the newly elected duo and their supporters fight for a real break with this policy and thus with the Grand Coalition? Or will their left-wing reformist promises, and the break with neo-liberalism they would require, be sacrificed on the altar of "party unity"? Or, will the government and the parliamentary faction be allowed, in practice, to continue their policies under left-wing chairpersons?

What do Walter-Borjans and Esken stand for?
For the tabloid media and the alarmed citizens of Germany, the election is a catastrophe. "The SPD was already in a bad way, now it is plunging into chaos", read the Süddeutsche Zeitung headline on November 30, quoting the Liberal party, FPD. Backbenchers and inexperienced people, we are told, would not only drive the SPD into the ditch, but also the Republic into new elections. Those who have always been able to rely on government officers, but now have doubts that the new executive board will be similarly compliant, are raving.

The former finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, member of the Bundestag for Baden-Württemberg, nourished this "fear", after all they at least wanted to renegotiate the current coalition agreement. However, they both avoided the question of the future of the grand coalition during their campaign for the presidency - and continue to do so. There is no explicit yes or no. They want to make this dependent on renegotiations.

Like almost all candidates in that election, they wanted to pursue the programmatic and political renewal of the SPD and turn it back into the left-wing "People's Party". Walter-Borjans himself aims for election results of 30 percent plus. Both played the social and ecological card, promised a minimum wage of 12 euros, the reintroduction of a wealth tax, higher taxes for the rich and an end to the principle of a balanced budget, the "black zero" as it is known in Germany. In other words, classic social democratic politics.

Both are undoubtedly far less left-wing than the British Labour Party's Jeremy Corbyn. They are classic redistributive reformists, with Esken presenting a more leftist accent than former state finance minister Walter-Borjans.

Before the party conference
The federal party conference of the SPD will take place from 6-8 December. It will take stock of the federal government and decide whether the party should continue the coalition. At the moment, the balance of power is unclear. It is not only the two chairpersons who will be elected. Several members of the federal executive board as well as the deputy chairs are to be elected. This will show who dominates the new party leadership, who has real majorities. Federal Labour Minister Hubertus Heil, for example, announced his candidacy for vice-chairman. He is currently trying to impose even higher Hartz IV sanctions in his ministry than those approved by the Constitutional Court.

Heil and other supporters of the federal government from the cabinet and parliamentary group will try to hem the new leaders in with majorities on the executive board. They already know that the party apparatus is on their side.

In order to support Esken and Walter-Borjans, Juso chairman Kühnert also declared himself willing to accept "responsibility" and run for vice-chairman. At the same time, he questioned the demand for a break in the coalition - clearly intending to appease the right wing and the centre of the party. According to Kühnert, one must fully think the matter through to the end. He told the Bonner Generalanzeiger: "Anyone who leaves a coalition gives up part of the control, which is a very sobering thought. The SPD delegates should take this into account in their decision".

This clearly expresses the fear the left wing has of its own victory and the consequences of its own demands and criticism of the Grand Coalition. The "unity of the party" weighs even more heavily than the continuation of the anti-worker, imperialist policy on the government, and the "leftists" in the SPD do not want to risk this abstract unity either. Thus, the victory of the critics of the Grand Coalition and opponents of the party leadership in the election to the party presidency threatens to be sunk by a series of concessions, "inquiries" and formal compromises.

Seldom have the power relations within the party been so unclear before a federal party conference, rarely has the situation been as open as it is now. The new chairmen and their supporters, however, want to avoid clarifying these questions. For them, the best thing to do would be to avoid a direct decision on whether or not to continue the coalition. Rather, there should be a mandate, formulated as vaguely as possible, for renegotiations focusing on investment, climate, social affairs and digital issues. This would, in practice, shift the decision on the coalition from the party conference to the executive board, government representatives and the parliamentary group.

Trade union bureaucracy
Already, on December 1, the head of the DGB trade unions made their position clear. Following the decision, DGB boss Hoffmann announced via Bild-Zeitung what he was demanding from the new executive board: "Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans should do their utmost to support the government to successfully implement the remaining projects from the coalition agreement".

The chairman of the public service union, ver.di, Frank Wernecke, expressed himself in a very similar way: "The government's mid-term review can show positive results on several points from the point of view of employees and society as a whole. These include the stabilisation of pension levels, investments in daycare centres and subcontractor liability for parcel services as well as the minimum training wage and the creation of the conditions for collectively agreed pay in nursing care for the elderly". (

Anyone who knows how to find so many positive things in the Grand Coalition obviously lives in another world. In any case, the DGB bureaucracy is making clear what it is advocating in the coming days and weeks; the preservation of the coalition. Surveys suggest that it could finally shred the SPD for good. The union leadership is deliberately ignoring this. Together with the cabinet, the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary group, most of the ruling SPD state prime ministers and mayors, the DGB leadership, as well as those of the individual unions, are all clearly opposed to the newly elected executive.

The fact that the trade union leaders and apparatuses are closing their eyes to the potential suicide of the Social Democrats is, of course, the result of their lack of any concern for their party. Social partnership and class cooperation have become the political nature of this bureaucracy over decades, so that a policy without "confidential" cooperation with capital and its direct political representatives appears to them to be absurd, nonsensical, even impossible. Just as even SPD-leftists like Kühnert, see a breakdown of the coalition as a "loss of control", so for the trade union bureaucrats, never mind the parliamentarians of the SPD, influence over policy is only possible via the cabinet and the institutions of social partnership.

Since the election decision, no one has tired of emphasising that the SPD is "one party" and that everyone wants to, and must, go forward together. On the one hand, these phrases are a sure sign of a struggle taking place behind the scenes. The government wing cannot be sure that it will win a vote at the party conference at all. After all, the vote on whether to start coalition negotiations in 2017 was already closer than the leadership election.

On the other hand, the right wing, in particular government representatives and the parliamentary group, use the talk of unity demagogically, even turn it upside down. If the party conference or the new chairmen were to break the coalition, it would probably force them out of the party. Some backbenchers, possibly even a majority, could even refuse to leave the coalition. In other words, the right wing is threatening to ignore any "hard" party congress resolutions - and presents this as if such majority resolutions were unacceptable acts of violence against the grand coalition. It is to be feared that Walter-Borjans/Esken and their supporters would give in to such blackmail but, if they do, this would not only prepare a further disintegration of the SPD, but also the beginning of the end of their own party presidency.

Reaction of the CDU
After surviving "her" party conference, CDU chairwoman Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer now wants to put pressure on the new SPD executive. If the coalition were to be put in danger, there would be no basic pension law - this shows, on the one hand, how lightly she takes the real poverty among the elderly in Germany. The Economic Council of the CDU/CSU has already concluded its own deal with the coalition and has added more - all the "gifts" to the SPD, such as the basic pension, would have brought them nothing. The message to the SPD party conference is clear: either you accept the crumbs from the coalition table, or you get nothing!

This threat ought to encourage all the despondent and half-muted SPD delegates and activists not to let themselves be blackmailed. On their firmness, however, nobody should rely.

Perspective for a shift to the left?
All, the same, the election of Esken and Walter-Borjans showed that there is still a certain political potential. The114,995 votes for them were also votes in favour of a break with the Grand Coalition and the Agenda 2010 policy, an expression of the anti-coalition sentiment in parts of the party. Now the question is whether this anti-neoliberal reformist current will develop and actually take up the fight against the "Agenda 2010" wing; the government socialists, the parliamentary faction and the party apparatus. The important components of their "renewal" would have the potential to mobilise and politically revive the DGB membership, that is the organic connection of the SPD to the class, especially against its bureaucratic leadership, the long arm of the Grand Coalition into the workers' movement.

Even if large parts of the left in Germany have little or nothing to say about this situation, it could become a central political confrontation.

While the DGB leadership wants to save the coalition and thus its supposed influence on the government, it would be very interesting to know what the six million DGB members actually think of the demands and proposals of the new SPD leadership. The end of the debt brake as a strategic goal for more investment in public goods, the reintroduction of a wealth tax, higher taxation of the rich and a higher minimum wage of 12 euros as well as the real end of Hartz IV, all these "newly" discovered positions could also be the means to mobilise the base of the SPD and trade union members. On this basis, a united action of all forces of the left and the workers' movement would also be possible. It is precisely this course that the supporters of Esken/Walter-Borjans should take.

Elsewhere, the Young Socialists' boss, Kevin Kühnert, even reminded the BMW works council that the nationalisation of key industries was in the union statutes. In this, there was perhaps a flicker of Corbynism to be seen.

The Democratic Left 21, DL21 around the Bundestag member Hilde Mattheis, a kind of pro-Corbyn current in the SPD, has called for the party to "gather" behind the executive. But what does that mean? Behind which executive? The one that proudly stands for a break with the coalition, or one that promises to be both inside and outside the coalition, government and opposition at the same time?

Only the former would really represent a step forward. It would certainly not only meet fierce resistance and agitation from the bourgeois press and the Union parties, it could also lead to a break with the right wing of the SPD and would require a political struggle within the unions. As even the example of the far left Corbyn and his mass support in Labour shows, the right wing of the party, the strictly social partnership trade union leadership, will not be appeased by compromises and concessions. They will only accept such compromises if they feel too weak to take immediate control of the SPD.

The question of the Grand Coalition plays a key role. Any form of continuation or "open-ended review" will ultimately play into the hands of the right and government socialists. Therefore, the left-wing delegates who are opposed to the continuation of the Grand Coalition should reject any wavering about the coalition question at the party conference and openly bury it. In doing so, after years of subordination to capital and the conservative parties, they would, at last, have done something positive for the working class.

Postscript: After the party congress

As expected, the conference, rather than calling for an end to the coalition, voted in favour of a motion to seek a "renegotiation" of the coalition agreement between the SPD and the CDU.

Above all, the DGB bureaucracy had clearly expressed its support for the continued existence of the government, and the arrangements for the party conference were made accordingly.
Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken were duly elected to the party executive with votes of 89.2 percent and 75.9 percent respectively. A potential conflict in the election for three Vice Chairs between Kühnert and Heil was avoided by the simple expedient of deciding to have five Vice-Chairs of the party.

Hilde Mattheis of DL 21 tried to push through a motion for an immediate exit from the government, but this was very clearly rejected. Kühnert, previously the "leading figure" of the anti-coalition camp, illustrated the spirit of compromise at the congress, when he explained that "he did not feel any longing for opposition in the party". That is certainly true of the members of the cabinet, the parliamentary fraction and the previous leadership, if not of the party membership. It was precisely the maintenance of the coalition that led to the collapse of support for the SPD, with less than two years until the next general election the coalition may stagger on, but it will not to restore the party's fortunes.