Angela Merkel's fragile coalition government was thrown into fresh uncertainty Sunday by the sudden resignation of the leader of its junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats.
The shock departure of Andrea Nahles, the first woman leader of the center-left SPD, has fueled speculation her eventual replacement could pull the party out of its coalition agreement with Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The collapse of the coalition could sink the government at the helm of Europe’s political and economic giant, and potentially hasten Merkel's departure from the world stage.
Nahles said she would step down because she has lost her party’s backing in the wake of the SPD’s disastrous showing in the European parliamentary elections in May. The SPD plummeted 15.8 percent of the vote, a record low. It finished third behind the CDU (28.9 percent), and the surging Greens (20.1 percent).
“The discussions within the parliamentary faction and feedback from within the party have shown me that I no longer have the necessary support to carry out my duties,” Nahles said in a statement.
The so-called “grand coalition” between the two parties has proven unpopular with many within the SPD, who argue it has cost the party its political identity and seen it hemorrhage support. The SPD, which propped up the previous Merkel administration in a grand coalition since 2013, only reluctantly renewed the arrangement in 2018 as a matter of last resort after the CDU’s attempts to form a coalition with other parties collapsed.
Since that government formed, many on the SPD’s left flank have called for the party to pull out of the coalition.
“I believe a coalition walk-out has to come. The question is when is the right time to do it.”
Olaf Scholz, the most senior SPD politician following Nahles’ resignation, has already ruled out renewing the grand coalition after the next election. With the departure of Nahles, the SPD's most vocal advocate for the grand coalition, there is increased speculation that her replacement could cut its support for the CDU, scuppering the coalition government.
“I believe a coalition walk-out has to come,” said Simone Lange, an SPD mayor and previous challenger for the party leadership, Reuters reported. “The question is when is the right time to do it.”
If the SPD pulls out, the CDU has three options: cobble together a coalition with other parties, attempt to operate as a minority government propped up on an issue-to-issue basis, or call fresh elections. All three paths would be difficult and destabilizing, and would likely hasten Merkel’s departure after more than 13 years as Germany’s leader. Merkel announced in October she will step down as chancellor in 2021, and has already stepped aside as party leader of the CDU.
Speaking in the wake of Nahles’ announcement Sunday, Merkel was keen to signal that it was business as usual as far as the coalition was concerned.
“We will continue the government's work with all seriousness, and above all greatly conscious of our responsibility. The issues we must solve are plain — in Germany, in Europe and in the rest of the world.”
Merkel’s successor as head of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, urged the SPD to choose a new leader swiftly so the government can continue its work.
“I assume the SPD will undergo a succession in short order without hindrance to the functioning of the grand coalition,” she said. “In the CDU we believe that this is not the time to play politics. We want to serve our country with good governing policies.”
Despite the pressure on the SPD to go in a new direction, the center-left party faces no good options, with polls suggesting that fresh elections would be disastrous for the party, and bad news for their coalition partners too. A poll released Saturday put the Greens in first place at 27 percent support, narrowly beating Merkel’s CDU (26 percent) for the first time. The SPD managed just 12 percent.
Cover: German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to media prior to a special closed meeting of her Christian Democratic Union at the party's headquarters in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, June 2, 2019. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)