German Coalition Deal Has Both Sides Sour, Even Before the Ink Dries

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BERLIN — Like any good compromise, the proposed coalition deal for a new German government has left just about everyone unhappy. But in the week since the agreement was announced, bubbling dissatisfaction has reached a boil.

Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared on national television trying to quell a mutiny in her ranks over the new “grand coalition” between her conservative alliance and the center-left Social Democrats. Martin Schulz, the Social Democratic leader, was forced to hand over the reins of his party.

At this stage, it is hard to tell which side feels most aggrieved.

During the election campaign, Mr. Schulz told voters his party’s role was in opposition. He insisted that neither the Social Democrats, nor he personally, would enter into another government led by Chancellor Merkel.

But after the collapse of Ms. Merkel’s three-way coalition talks with other parties in November, Mr. Schulz reneged on his pledge, agreeing to discuss the prospect of a third coalition government under the conservative chancellor.

Weeks later, as the deal for the new government began to take shape, Mr. Schulz wen further, announcing that he would be willing to take on the post of foreign minister. That stoked ire among the rank-and-file, which have yet to approve the deal.

Sensing the need to quell the discontent, Mr. Schulz walked back his designs on the Foreign Ministry and announced that he would step down as the party’s chairman as well.

“With my resignation from office and decision not to participate in the government, I want to bring the debate over personnel in the Social Democrats to an end, so that the members can really concentrate on what is in the coalition agreement,” Mr. Schulz told reporters on Tuesday.

“I leave this office without bitterness or resentment,” Mr. Schulz added. “In this office, I have experienced highs and lows as are seldom experienced in politics in such a form. That is just the way it is.”

Olaf Scholz, the mayor of Hamburg, has now taken over as interim Social Democratic chairman. Even he praised last week’s coalition agreement to members at a party rally in Bavaria on Wednesday, insisting that “this is a program that can really be supported.”

Not all Social Democrats are so persuaded.

Despite winning two key ministries, finance and foreign, and commitments to work toward several of their policy goals, many of the 470,000 Social Democratic members remain staunchly opposed to what they view as a sellout.

Martin Schulz at a news conference on Tuesday in the Berlin headquarters of his Social Democratic Party.CreditTobias Schwarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Now, party leaders are racing against their own March 2 deadline for the rank and file to vote thumbs up or down on the deal. A rejection would sent the country back to new elections.

Even as the Social Democrats scramble to sell the new agreement, in the eyes of many members of the chancellor’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, it is their party, not its junior partners, that has been forced to make the greatest concessions.

Ms. Merkel appeared on the country’s public broadcaster ZDF on Sunday night to explain her decisions and respond to the growing criticism from within her own ranks.

“I understand the disappointment,” Ms. Merkel said. But she said the coalition was necessary to ensure stability and Berlin’s ability to play a defining role in Europe. “And now we need to show that we can start with a new team,” she said.

Even if that new team finally gets into place, the long haggling and the divisive preamble to her next government have made it clear that the chancellor will be in a weakened position.

The Social Democrats received just 20.5 percent of the election results, and yet still found themselves in a position of power in the coalition negotiations, noted Martin Florack, a professor of political science at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

The chancellor was left with little choice but to make deep concessions to get the Social Democrats on board for another joint government — the third such venture since 2005. The alternative would have been new elections, and possibly the end of her tenure.

“I think the Social Democrats were in a position to let the coalition talks collapse, and Ms. Merkel couldn’t have afforded that,” Mr. Florack said.

So far, neither the chancellor’s explanations nor the reshuffling at the top of their own party have been enough to convince the youth wing of the Social Democrats that a new role in government is worth it.

The coalition agreement “is an expression of a more-of-the-same attitude and a riding out of problems,” the Young Socialists, or Jusos, said in a position paper that evaluated the terms of the agreement.

Their leader, Kevin Kühnert, is campaigning for the rejection of the deal on the ground that it lacks the change the younger generation says is needed after 12 years of Ms. Merkel’s leadership.

“We have a responsibility to think beyond the perspective of four years,” Mr. Kühnert told a crowd in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district on Tuesday. “We have a responsibility to look at why our party is constantly ramming its head against a wall.”

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NYT > Europe

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