A New Coalition With Merkel? Not So Fast

Chancellor Angela Merkel last week in Berlin with the leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, Horst Seehofer, left, and the Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz, announcing that they had reached a draft coalition agreement.

ESSEN, Germany — The mood among the comrades was restive.

Two dozen members of the local chapter of the Social Democratic Party patiently sat through the order of the day — public toilets, the closure of a slaughterhouse — until discussion finally turned to agenda item No. 8.

It was the question all were waiting for: Should their proud but ailing party join Chancellor Angela Merkel in another coalition government — despite having categorically ruled it out for most of last year?

“Comrades,” Matthias Vollstedt, the jovial bow-tie-wearing leader of the local party chapter, asked the eclectic group of workers, students, civil servants and pensioners, age 22 to 82, “is there anyone in the room who actually wants this?”

Not a single hand went up.

Therein lies a potentially major stumbling block not only for Ms. Merkel, but for all of Europe, which has been waiting for Germany to form a government for three and a half months since its inconclusive September election.

This Sunday, 600 Social Democratic Party delegates will vote on whether to go ahead with coalition talks. A no vote could send Germans back to elections, potentially signal the political demise of Ms. Merkel, and portend months more uncertainty. Even a yes vote would be no guarantee: Any final coalition agreement will also need the approval of a majority of party members.

For the Social Democrats, the issue is not tactical, however. It is existential.

The party has lived in the shadow of Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, its traditional rivals, as coalition partners for eight out of the past 12 years. Those governments have been admirably capacious, straddling the political spectrum, but they have also left increasing numbers of Germans feeling that they have been denied a true political opposition.

In that time, the Social Democrats have watched their share of support dwindle. When Ms. Merkel took office in 2005, the Social Democrats got 34 percent of the vote. By last September, that share had shrunk to 20.5 percent, their lowest since 1933.

Instead, many voters defected to the extremes on left and right: The populist Alternative for Germany broke into the Parliament for the first time, finishing third.

Throughout the campaign, the Social Democratic leader, Martin Schulz, seemed aware of the trap for his party, and vowed “never” to go into coalition with Ms. Merkel again.

But he has spectacularly changed his mind. Party members like those in the Essen, in Germany’s old industrial heartland, not only feel betrayed. They feel their party’s survival is on the line.

“It would be the end of social democracy in Germany,” one said darkly.

“Like lemmings jumping of the cliff,” sighed another.

“I don’t trust the party leadership anymore, why should voters?” a third added.

“We are losing people to the far right,” warned a fourth. And as if on cue, Norbert Radtke, a retired autoworker and party member for 35 years, announced: “If they do this, I’ll quit.”

In a rebellious if symbolic vote, Social Democrats in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt have already voted against talks. The Berlin chapter swiftly followed suit.

Senior Social Democrats frantically toured the country this week, trying to sway their restive base. Leading mayors and prominent lawmakers from the party’s left wing also urged the party’s rank-and-file to back another coalition, promising a review of any new government two years down the line.

The biggest number of delegates — 144 — comes from North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state and home to old steel and mining towns like Essen, where the Social Democrats long had a solid voter base.

But that base has been crumbling.

“If we don’t find our way back to a social democracy that sets itself apart then not much will be left of this party,” said Arno Bischof, who also attended the meeting in Essen.

He is one of five delegates the city will send to Bonn on Sunday. He reckons all five will vote against coalition talks.

The last time the party went into a coalition with the conservatives in 2013, members were skeptical, too, but in the end three in four backed it. The pressure to safeguard stability in Germany and Europe weighs heavily again.

But many now see a stint in opposition as the only credible hope for the party to reinvent itself and address a much deeper identity crisis that faces the left across the western world.

“We still think in old industries,” said Mr. Vollstedt, an infrastructure expert. “We need to think about worker rights in the gig economy and precarious jobs, that’s where we’re needed.”

Having rallied behind the neoliberal policies of their center-right rivals for the past two decades, center-left parties have been obliterated from the Netherlands to Poland. But it is the example of Austria that comes up most: There, a longstanding coalition between conservatives and Social Democrats recently gave way to a coalition of the conservatives with the far right.

“This is not just about the future of our party, it’s about the future of our political culture,” said Lucien Luckau, a member of the Social Democratic youth movement in Essen.

Another grand coalition in Germany would make the AfD the biggest opposition party in Parliament. In parts of eastern Germany, it has already overtaken the Social Democrats as the second-biggest party.

“When there is a shift to the right in the country, is it really a good idea to make the far right the main opposition party?” asked Britta Altenkamp, a lawmaker in the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia.

In Essen, the concern about working-class voters switching to the far right is not an academic one. Even Germans with Turkish roots are defecting, said Deniz Ibis, a 30-year-old security worker.

Surprised at the AfD’s strong showing in his own heavily Turkish neighborhood, he had asked around. “All of my neighbors voted for the AfD,” he said.

Last year, a local Social Democratic city politician and member of 26 years, Guido Reil, defected to the AfD and took a lot of votes with him. An active miner like his father and grandfather before him, he comes from a family of Social Democrats.

“I’m still a social democrat,” Mr. Reil said over a nonalcoholic beer in his local bar this week, “only inside the AfD.”

He quit the Social Democratic Party over migration policy and a sense that the leadership had “completely lost touch with working people.”

The migration issue is front and center for many working-class voters here.

Karlheinz Endruschat represents the Social Democrats in the struggling and ethnically mixed north of Essen, which has received disproportionate amounts of asylum seekers since 2015 compared with the wealthier south of the city.

“People care about migration, crime, worker rights and pensions,” Mr. Endruschat said. “But let’s not fool ourselves: Migration comes first.”

“The way the people in my district talk about refugees, they say things for which you’d get thrown out of the party,” he said. “This is not something they read about in the paper, it’s their daily experience.”

There are periodic street battles between local Lebanese clans. The police have had to cordon off the main street several times. Petty crime in the neighborhood, an old miner’s settlement, has crept up, too, locals report.

Many women on Mr. Endruschat’s street, his wife included, have applied for a small arms license after being harassed on the street by young migrants.

Two years ago, three local Social Democratic politicians caused a stir when they planned a protest demanding a stop on refugees sent to the north. Their slogan was: “The north is full.” The party leadership banned them from holding the protest.

In the end they canceled because the extremist Nationalist Party of Germany was planning to join.

If another Grand Coalition happens, Mr. Reil, the AfD defector, is certain: “The Social Democrats are finished and the AfD will become the second-biggest force in German politics.”

But he does not think the members of his former party will let it happen. Which is why the AfD is already drawing up party lists for new elections.

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