Hamburg, Germany | AFP | Germany’s Social Democrats started campaigning Saturday ahead of a party referendum that spells the last threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s hopes of forming a new government, five months after an inconclusive election.
In a vote expected to be tight, the more than 460,000 members of the deeply divided centre-left SPD will cast their ballots on a plan to enter a new coalition as junior partners to Merkel’s conservatives.
The vote, which starts on Tuesday, comes as the 153-year-old labour party’s ratings are in freefall, with latest opinion polls giving it just 16 percent support — only one point ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
If the SPD rank-and-file give the thumbs up in the results to be announced on March 4, veteran leader Merkel will likely launch her fourth-term government by late March.
If they vote no, Germans will probably face a snap election, prolonging the political limbo in Europe’s biggest economy and threatening the end of Merkel’s 12-year reign.
A tense SPD leadership hopes that the restive party troops will back their plans for a new “grand coalition”, dubbed “GroKo”, despite deep-seated fears the party will suffer further in the shadow of Merkel.
Opinion polls now suggest two-thirds of SPD voters support another right-left alliance, but the mood of active party members is hard to gauge.
– #NoGroKo –
Both camps are set to criss-cross the country, with the SPD’s designated next leader Andrea Nahles and caretaker chief Olaf Scholz speaking at the campaign launch Saturday in the northern city of Hamburg.
Few dare make any predictions about the ballot given the volatile mood in the party, which scored a historic low of 20.5 percent in the September election and has been ruptured by harsh infighting.
“It is undeniable that we have all made mistakes in recent months which have led to criticism from the grass roots,” Nahles said in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine.
“We have reacted to these criticisms,” she added.
The party’s youth and left wings are driving a concerted #NoGroKo campaign, backed by some regional chapters.
They argue that the party must recover and rebuild in opposition — which would force Merkel to opt for a minority government or face a new election — rather than betray its cherished ideals in another grab for power.
“If we’re scared of new elections, we may as well close up shop,” argues youth wing leader Kevin Kuehnert, 28.