BERLIN — Following a grueling all night marathon negotiating session, Germany’s two leading parties reached an agreement Wednesday to once again form a governing coalition, after inconclusive elections in September mired the country in four months of political gridlock.
The months of wrangling and repeated failures to come up with a coalition had left Germany, and particularly Chancellor Angela Merkel, weakened at a time when Europe was seeking a strong leader.
The talks between Merkel’s party (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) extended past a self-imposed deadline and a two-day grace period into Wednesday morning, when party leaders finally overcame key differences on issues such as health care and labor policy.
Yet even after all these negotiations, one hurdle remains, the Social Democrats have insisted on a party-wide vote on the final deal and its youth wing has been actively recruiting members to vote against it.
This final approval vote by party members isn’t unprecedented in Germany, but it’s not standard practice either, says political scientist Thorsten Faas from the Free University in Berlin. In 2013, the SPD membership was also allowed to vote on the coalition with Merkel’s conservatives.
“It shows that the leadership was, and still is, in a rather weak position,” Faas said. “In the end, it was a move that was necessary to even get the process of negotiation started.”
Last weekend, the conservatives and the Social Democrats agreed on key housing policies, such as stricter regulations on rent ceilings in major cities, a 2 billion euro investment in subsidized housing, and funds to help young families construct private homes — all points the Social Democrats promised their base to renegotiate with Merkel’s party.
The negotiation partners also agreed on major steps toward expanding broadband reach and speed by 2025, a plan to patch holes in cell data coverage, and forming a new data ethics commission.
If the SPD members vote in support of the final coalition treaty next month, a new government will go into effect late March or early April. If they don’t, Merkel will likely be forced to form a minority government, and it could mean the end of SPD leader Martin Schulz’s career, and even Merkel’s, according to Faas.
Over the past four months, large portions of the Social Democrats spoke out against entering coalition talks at all, arguing that Merkel’s party would dilute their attempt to carve out a new, independent political identity after the party’s support dropped below 20 percent after last September’s elections — a record low in its postwar history.
Years of coalition with the conversatives had damaged their standing with voters, they said.
Merkel is entering her fourth term, and both she and Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz have failed to generate much excitement about their parties’ renewed partnership in governing. An editorial by the German center-left daily Suddeutsche Zeitung deemed the renewed partnership a “Coalition of Losers,” writing that the party leaders “aren’t protagonists of the future, but of the past. Effectively they’re representatives of a ‘carry on’ politics even if they promise change all day long.”
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