It happened in Bonn last Sunday, on January 21st. There were close to 650 delegates, the gallery in the congress hall was also packed with observers. The suspense was almost visible, also among the demonstrators outside. All over Germany millions were watching closely to see if the future path of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s oldest political party, might be taking a new fork. Party representatives from all sixteen states moved towards a vote – for or against renewing the Grand Coalition (in German “Grosse Koalition”, shortened to GROKO) with their traditional adversaries but senior partners for the past four years, the “Union” – Angela Merkel’s right-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian offshoot, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The speeches had lasted all day. SPD leader Martin Schulz urged a Yes vote; join with them! After four months since the September elections with no proper government and cabinet, only the old one hanging on as caretakers, Germany must at last be saved from political disintegration. Only two alternatives were available; an unprecedented minority government for Merkel’s Union (and she has already rejected such a rickety structure) or new elections. But the far right, fascistic wolves of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), already howling in the Bundestag with 94 seats, might very possibly win even more. His warning about them was the only point in his speech to get more than luke-warm applause, which is all he got at its end, a strong hint of the weakened position of the man who, one year ago, was welcomed so warmly – very briefly – as a new party savior, who had boldly pledged the SPD after the election to quit the coalition and become an active opposition party to Merkel & Co. and so regain its old-time strength. He has since swallowed those proud words.
The SPD certainly needs to regain strength! Four years of compromise under the pressures of the Merkel crowd, achieving little of value for the working people who traditionally supported the SPD, were punished with a measly 20.5 % of the vote, a loss of 5% in four years. The CDU and CSU lost even more, getting their worst results since 1949, but still led the field of seven parties with 34 %, while the SPD teeters on the edge of losing its position as major competitor and rival.
This explains why a surprising leftish resistance could swell up in the SPD during the one short week since the three party coalition negotiators presented their compromise agreement – and opposing it! The proposed four year government, they argued, with the Union always in a stronger position, would lose our SPD even more voters, it could push us out of the central court forever! It’s plain suicide! We must stay out, stand up for old-time principles, win back lost support, as Schulz had once demanded.
A few smaller state delegations risked opposition. But almost unanimous in condemning any move to join a new government and enjoy those warm, comfy Cabinet chairs was the independent young members’ annex to the party, the Jung Sozialisten – called Jusos – traditionally more militant and further to the left than the main party organization. It was their posters which had predominated all week – and now outside the congress hall: NO GROKO! And inside the hall their speeches outshone the loud but less convincing words of Martin Schulz. It was a division somewhat resembling current wing fights within the Democratic Party in the USA.
Taking the floor as last speaker before the vote was Andrea Nahles, who chairs the SPD caucus in the Bundestag. She was once a leader of the party’s left-wing, in fact, she was president of the Jusos – in 1995-1999. Years in the coalition, also as Minister of Labor, have mellowed her views considerably. But they have not depleted her oratorical skill! She blasted the present Juso leader and demanded a vote in favor of a coalition. She praised the skimpy points gained during the negotiations and promised to try for a few more in the direct coalition bargaining which must now follow: such as equally good medical care for patients with government–supported insurance as for those favored with private insurance; protection against uncontrolled job lay-offs; support in uniting split-up refugee families. But, she admitted, new gains would, at best, be very thin; the two Union parties, facing strong attacks from further right wing forces within and outside their own parties, rejected any new compromises. Nevertheless, she warned, there was no alternative to a Yes for GroKo!
The major union heads present, with their close ties to SPD leaders, nodded in agreement, as usual preferring the “lesser evil”. Fifty-odd party apparatchiks, like super delegates in the US Democratic Party, had been preaching around the country till they were hoarse: in favor. Opposing them were at most about 90 Juso delegates. The result seemed predictable, yet the suspense was almost intolerable.
The hand vote outcome was unclear so an exact count was necessary. To the huge relief of some, the great disappointment of others, the result was: Ja – 362, Nein – 279. One delegate abstained.
With this OK the three-party negotiations have now moved into forming a new government, framing, now definitely, an agreed-upon program and deciding who gets which Cabinet job. (Many wonder whether a modicum of decency after his once proud, now forgotten words will move Schulz to refrain from such a job.) All this will again take time; it is hoped it can be inked before the jolly Karneval days (like Mardi Gras) in mid-February, by ancient tradition a time when fools rule the day! Fools or not, by Easter the new government, after six months of haggling, should finally take over.
But halt! Between the fools’ parades and the Easter bunny comes Lent, a time of repentance and, even for secular SPD leaders, perhaps unwanted abstinence. By their own ruling there must first be a referendum; the entire 430,000-strong SPD membership must vote for approval or rejection. So another tense period of exhortation and recrimination lies ahead.
The mostly youthful NO GROKO forces have taken a tip from Jeremy Corbyn’s success in upsetting the hidebound and/or corrupt, Blair-faced forces in the British Labour Party; his supporters recruited thousands of new members who voted “for Jeremy” and have greatly enlivened that party ever since. In Germany, a Juso spot in Google to join the SPD (ten euros for the first two months) won 1700 new members within one day. The party leaders got worried; are they genuine Social Democrats – our kind? They may be able to set a cut-off date after which newbies could not vote.
Just a week before the SPD meeting in Bonn thousands of people joined in East Berlin, as every year, to march or walk to honor Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht at the handsome memorial site for them and many others who fought and sometimes died for a just world – more precisely, a socialist world. Many who placed a single red carnation at the site were the “old faithful” from GDR days, elderly, dwindling in number, but there were also young people from all Germany and neighboring countries, of many nationalities. Few if any were from the SPD; the thousands here supported either the LINKE or a panoply of groups and grouplets far and further to the left.
These were people with mostly skeptical views about the on-going SPD conflict. They recalled how Karl Liebknecht had to defy his SPD caucus pressure and – very much alone – vote against war credits for the Kaiser at the start of World War I; how Rosa and Karl went to prison for opposing the war as well as the Social Democrats who joined a government backing it to the bitter, bloody end. And how their hopes for a new, socialist Germany after that war were stymied by the Social Democratic Party which, at least passively, was complicit in the brutal murder of the two in January 1919, a date again being marked by those who still admire them. Though divided by political disagreements, both within and outside the LINKE party, almost certainly everyone taking part here saw that both sides in the planned GROKO approved German boots on the ground from Afghanistan to Mali and Estonia (and who knew where next?), plus a new, swift, powerful European military force led by Germany. They saw that the proudest accomplishment of the SPD in the past four years had been a new minimum wage in allegedly prosperous Germany: 8.84 euros (about $11), full of loopholes, and with no hike in taxes for the super-rich! And they saw the growing danger of the invigorated fascists who trumpeted hatred of foreigners, especially Muslims, but aimed at working people. Some CDU-CSU leaders were moving in the same direction! Could the Jusos with their NO GROKO – and could the LINKE with all other genuine antifascists – stop the rightward march? 2018 may well contain many days of suspense!