Germany’s Grand Coalition: SPD and the Lessons of the Past


Roberto Inclán is a Germanist


More than four months have elapsed since CDU/CSU and SPD formed a coalition in Germany. This time, the aim was to avoid the errors made by both parties in the previous coalition of 2005-2009, after Gerhard Schröder’s defeat and the election of Angela Merkel as Chancellor. The result of said coalition was not satisfactory to either party, but was especially harmful to SPD. The Social Democratic Party decreased by more than 11 points in the following 2009 election and CDU/CSU had to form a coalition with the Liberals to continue in office.

This time, the scene has been very different. While after the 2005 election the main parties almost had the same number of seats—226 for CDU/CSU and 222 for SPD—, CDU/CSU was the clear winner of the election of 22 September, nearly achieving an absolute majority. SPD’s defeat at the polls led to candidate Peer Steinbrück’s resignation and, from then on, Sigmar Gabriel took up the reins of negotiations to form the grand coalition, which resulted in a 185-page document entitled “Shaping Germany’s Future”.

Gabriel himself—Environment Minister in the previous 2005 coalition and currently Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Economy and Energy—, has managed this time to carry forward a more decisive strategy and to play a more prominent role. In order to get the support that he did not gain at the polls, Gabriel decided to consult the almost half a million members of his party, gaining the trust of 76% of them, a decisive factor to face negotiations with strength and to therefore approach the coalition agreement to the ideology of his party.

One of the most popular measures has certainly been the introduction of a minimum wage of EUR 8.50 an hour. The bill, which was submitted by current Minister of Labour, Social Democratic Andrea Nahles, was passed on 2 April. Despite introducing some exceptions with regard to earning the minimum wage, the initiative has been a success for Minister Nahles in the eyes of public opinion. According to the most recent data for April provided by the survey carried out by German public television broadcaster ARD, both Andrea Nahles and Sigmar Gabriel are the members of the Government whose rating has improved the most, increasing by 7 points with regard to the previous period, although Chancellor Angela Merkel is the best regarded politician. On the negative side, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD)’s rating has decreased by 3% due to his weak stance with regard to Ukraine’s situation.

With regard to the work of the Government, most Germans approve by a small margin the coalition’s management; 50% claim to be “satisfied or very satisfied”, while 48% are “less or not at all satisfied”. A very poor result that shows the weakening of Merkel’s Government—in June 2010, 86% of respondents claimed to be “satisfied or very satisfied” with the coalition formed by Christian Democrats and Liberals at that moment—.

The survey shows that if the Bundestag elections were held today, SPD would obtain 26% of the votes—2% more than in the previous elections—and CDU/CSU would obtain 41%—one point less—. And all of this a little over a month before the European Parliament elections, with German Martin Schulz—European Parliament President since January 2012—as the Socialist candidate for the European Commission, opposing former Prime Minister of Luxembourg Jean-Claude Juncker, European People’s Party candidate, mostly supported by Angela Merkel’s CDU.