(Bloomberg) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition suffered a potentially fatal blow with the election of government skeptics Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken as co-leaders of Germany’s Social Democrats at the weekend.
How much longer her fourth government will survive — and whether she can make it through to the end of her term in late 2021 — depends on who comes out on top.
Merkel’s CDU, its Bavarian CSU sister-party and the SPD hammered out a blueprint for government last year, which Walter-Borjans and Esken have said they now want to revise. Something has to give, or Merkel’s 14-year reign could end ahead of time and Europe’s biggest economy will suffer a fresh bout of political turbulence.
Here’s a look at the main players and their motives:
The collapse of the coalition would end Merkel’s political career. That’s the key reason why she wants the government to remain in place, with her vice chancellor, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, keeping his job despite losing out in the SPD leadership vote. Merkel last week urged SPD lawmakers in the Bundestag not to jump ship. “We’ve done a great deal, we’ve started a lot, but much still remains to be done,” she said. “Therefore I think we should continue working long in this legislative period. That’s my opinion. I’m in.” On Monday, she avoided a public statement on the outcome of the SPD vote. However, her chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, indicated that she is open to talks on possible new initiatives but rules out a renegotiation of the coalition agreement.
A year ago, CDU leader — and Merkel’s chosen successor — Kramp-Karrenbauer would have favored a breakup of the coalition because it would likely have propelled her into the chancellery. In the meantime, she has suffered a series of setbacks and the party has been hammered in regional elections. That means that she also wants the coalition to survive — at least for the time being. But as soon as her situation stabilizes, AKK, as she is typically known, may be tempted to challenge Merkel and force the CDU to confirm her as its chancellor candidate. She has taken a much firmer line with the SPD than Merkel, categorically rejecting their demand for a reworking of the coalition deal. AKK’s uncompromising position could give some members of the SPD a welcome excuse to walk away.
Esken represents the far left of the SPD and is the most vocal critic of Merkel’s government. She blames the coalition for her party’s recent decline and wants to stop it before it becomes terminal. Esken entered politics relatively late in life after jobs as a parcel courier, typist, chauffeur and waitress. A qualified computer scientist, she is an idealist rather than a pragmatist and had never held a leading post in the party before. She wants wide-ranging concessions in areas including public investment, a minimum wage and measures to tackle climate change and is prepared to leave the government if Merkel’s bloc is unwilling to compromise.
The former finance minister of North-Rhine Westphalia, who made a name for himself chasing down tax dodgers, is a left-leaning pragmatist. He blames the previous SPD leadership for failing to give the coalition a clear Social Democratic identity, accusing them of making too many concessions. He is said to favor remaining in government but wants to make full use of the threat of bringing it down to secure a better deal that could lift the SPD from historic lows in the polls.
Despite the painful setback of his rejection by the SPD rank and file, Scholz will — at least for now — remain a force in the government and the party. He will work to ensure the coalition lasts until the end of the legislature in 2021. But his influence has been greatly diminished and his failure to get the backing of his party has damaged his hopes of running for chancellor.
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