This weekend, the SPD held their regular (bi-annual) party conference in Leipzig. In some alternate reality, this conference would have approved of the SPD/Green coalition agreement. Short of a resounding victory of the left, however, the leadership took a very interesting gamble when they decided in September that the party base should have a vote on the CDU/SPD agreement when (and if) the current negotiations with the Christian Democrats come to a happy conclusion.
But the event was nonetheless interesting for a number of reasons. First, even before the conference began, the leadership announced that the party would abolish their long-standing policy of non-cooperation with the Left party in the Western states and on the national level (the SPD had no such qualms in the East). This vow of abstinence had proved more and more problematic over the last years, and getting rid of it well ahead of the next election looks like a clever move. But making such a move during the ongoing negotiations was not exactly a subtle hint and also opens up the (very theoretical) possibility of changing sides during this parliament’s lifetime, what ever that may be.
Second, the current leadership was re-elected as planned, but the results were “honest”, which is SPD-speak for lousy. The party’s middle elites happily used the opportunity to vent their anger over the lost election and their frustration with the emerging coalition agreement. Third, the negotiations went on during the conference, but it was leaked that cordial agreement and professional respect had once more turned into shouting matches, and that impasses had been reached after weeks of seemingly smooth progress.
It doesn’t take my inner Machiavelli to smell a ruse within a feint within a plot. After Merkel has basically accepted the introduction of a national minimum wage (she rather disarmingly quoted a survey which showed 78 per cent support for the policy amongst her voters), the SPD more or less openly demand at least two major concessions which are symbolically charged and highly visible while being cheap in economic terms: gay marriage and dual citizenship. Moreover, the leadership hint that the members could still vote against the agreement. This is the classic board strategy (“Personally, I fully agree with you, but the board will never approve the deal if you don’t accept X”). That is one nice stratagem.
But unlike the rank and file members, parts of the SPD middle elites and probably the Christian Democrats, the SPD leadership is afraid of new elections in January. Given the current state of public opinion, the party might lose some more, which would cost them their offices. And Merkel’s CDU has a “board” of their own: their Bavarian sister party, which must also approve of any coalition agreement. German politics will remain interesting (by German standards) for weeks to come.