This time next year, Germany will be going to the polls in national elections. Marcel Lewandowsky looks at the German Social Democrat Party’s (SPD) possible candidates for the Chancellorship and argues that, no matter who becomes the party leader, the party’s support for the European Stability mechanism and lack of substantial conflicts with their Christian Democrat opponents mean that a replay of the grand coalition of 2005-2009 looks increasingly likely.

On the eve of the 2013 elections to the Bundestag, the German social democrats (SPD) are facing a weakened government, multiple strategy options and several possibilities for coalition. Although each candidate is favored by different factions, options for political change on the European scale are limited. And what about winning?

For about two years, the SPD has been discussing its possible candidates for chancellorship. In the late summer of 2012, no odds-on favorite is in sight. Peer Steinbrück, former secretary of finance and media darling, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, former secretary of state and vice chancellor and Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since the landslide defeat of 2009, all keep a low profile. To date, none of them have declared their intention to run for the election. But what are the strategic possibilities in terms of the interests of party factions, policy profiles and options for coalition?

At first sight, there is what we might call the handicap of diversity: whereas Steinbrück and Steinmeier are promoted by moderate groups such as the Seeheimer Kreis, it seems like Gabriel, who has proven some degree of flexibility in programmatic positions, would be more likely to serve the interests of the left wing. Ironically, Steinmeier, who suffered the parties’ largest defeat in the 2009 election to the Bundestag, might be the most promising candidate in this round dance: the chairman of the parliamentary group, presidential in his appearance, has a good reputation both inside and outside the SPD. But as much as the candidates vaguely embody different policy positions, they stand also stand for different segments of the electorate – in terms of strategists’ interpretations that is. Discussions are held along the idea of a cleavage between modern-centrist and traditional groups within the electorate.

More than drawing a realistic picture of electoral outcomes, the debate about the candidates and their chances on the electoral market reflects the persisting insecurity of the SPD. Although preceding party conferences served some demands of the left (such as the property tax), at least one of the candidates, Peer Steinbrück, is known as a proponent of liberal economic policies. As much as some strategists (and former chancellor Helmut Schmidt) see him as the candidate with best prospects, Steinbrück’s brisk behavior and sometimes reckless exposure to official party policies increase the chances that his chancellorship might drive the SPD to the edge of another split. In contrast, Gabriel is highly unpopular within the electorate.

This shows that the social democrats might have healed some of their wounds by a partial return to leftish policies, but programmatic reforms were not followed by personal renewal. No wonder that some functionaries are calling for Hannelore Kraft, the prime minister of Germany’s most populous Bundesland, North Rhine-Westphalia. But although known for both her pragmatic political style and her popularity amongst the electorate, she has been in office for not even three years and cannot be expected to risk her reputation for a defeat in the name of the party.

So, what appears like a decision between a pack of alpha dogs might turn out as an insuperable handicap on the way to the election: the longer the debate goes on, the more internal groups will push the candidate of their choice, eagerly followed by the media and their interest in internal conflicts.

Nevertheless, the SPD will nominate one of the three men as candidate for chancellorship, and one should expect that they opt for Steinmeier as a compromise between Gabriel and Steinbrück. This is where even more problems come into effect: as much as the opportunities for coalition building have widened in numbers, they have narrowed in realistic chances. Since autumn 2009, the German party system has undergone substantial changes.

Taking the opinion polls of the last three years into account, one should not anticipate that the Social Democrats and the Greens as their partner of choice will gain a relative majority of seats. Unless the Social Democrats are willing to back down, they either have to join a grand coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats or build a three-party coalition.

On the one hand, the Pirate Party has popped up on the political screen. Although firmly settled on the centre-left of the political spectrum (despite ongoing programmatic debates), the Pirates are neither heading for office nor capable of adapting. Even if they manage to win seats in parliament, they are more likely to tolerate a minority government than cooperate as a partner.

But this scenario is hard to imagine with Steinmeier or even Steinbrück in office. On the other hand, the ongoing decline of the Liberals (FDP) is as much a problem for the Social Democrats as it is a benefit: facing not only their loss of parliamentary mandate but its downfall as a relevant party, the FDP is an insecure factor both in terms of electoral outcome and of policy positions.

Joining a coalition with the SPD and the Greens is a nightmare scenario for the Liberals as they would contaminate the rest of their brand and therefore run the risk of compromising their remaining bourgeois voters. At the same time, Die Linke (the Left Party) is still recovering from desperate fights. Mending ties with different factions, Die Linke is more likely to opt for opposition than for a three-party coalition which would be built on too many trade-offs. And again, who could picture any cooperation between the SPD and the left led by Steinmeier, the architect of the notorious Agenda 2010 or Peer Steinbrück?

But even if the SPD manages to become the leader of a two- or three-party coalition, this does not imply that the new administration might be able to make a big change. With the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) likely to be ratified by Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck, there is not much room left for substantial disputes. Steinmeier and Gabriel hurried to interpret the Constitutional Court’s decision as a ‘strengthening of parliamentary rights’ (Steinmeier) and ‘good news for the employees in Germany’ (Gabriel). This recent development confirms what has been on the horizon for the last months: whoever will lead the SPD into the next election, they are just as pro-ESM as their Christian Democratic opponents – disagreements in detail hardly suit the demands of electoral campaigning. But then, what topic is left?

Indeed, one year before the election, chances for success are hard to measure. But whatever candidate the Social Democrats choose, the personal options, possible coalitions and the loss of a substantial issue of conflict (and the will to play to populist card) lead to the conclusion that what is the most unwanted scenario might become the most realistic outcome – the reprint of the grand coalition of 2005-2009, led by Angela Merkel. 

This article originally appeared at Policy Network as contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network’s monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics. 

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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About the author 

Marcel Lewandowsky – University of Bonn
Marcel Lewandowsky is a political scientist at the Institute of Political Science and Sociology, University of Bonn.

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