German Social Democrats’ convention backs coalition talks with conservative parties

By Ulrich Rippert
23 October 2013

Last Sunday a convention of leading figures in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) agreed to commence coalition negotiations with the conservative Union (Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, CDU/CSU). The convention is the highest decision-making body of the SPD between party congresses. SPD delegates voted by 196 votes in favour to 31 against, with two abstentions, for the coalition negotiations. The majority in favour was much larger than had been anticipated. Talks with the CDU and CSU are due to start on Wednesday.

In the past few weeks some figures inside the SPD had warned against the party joining a coalition with the conservatives under conditions where it would be very much a junior partner in government. Such voices, however, were largely silent at Sunday’s convention. A small group of protesters stood in front of the SPD headquarters in Berlin and distributed leaflets calling for an alternative coalition with the Greens and the Left Party. Inside the conference, however, there was overwhelming agreement on a deal with the Union.

A major role in achieving the consensus was played by the premier of the state of North Rhine Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft who, after the recent election, had spoken out several times against a grand coalition. In her speech on Sunday, Kraft actively supported coalition negotiations, arguing that the SPD now had the political responsibility to ensure that the Union parties were not left with a monopoly to decide policy. The Social Democrats should at least seek to improve the situation for low income earners and those with precarious jobs, she declared, to the applause of the delegates.

In fact, such phrases are merely window dressing aimed at disguising the true character of a grand coalition. The list of social demands adopted by the convention as the basis for coalition negotiations also serves to gloss over the incoming government’s real program of social cuts and wage reductions.

The SPD leadership had distributed to delegates a list of ten “essential” requirements for a coalition with the Union. The document stated: “At the heart of the ten objectives is labour market policy and the enforcement of a nationwide legal minimum wage of 8.50 euros per hour”.

Additional demands include “better measures against poverty in old age”, “more flexible transitions to retirement” and an increase in the employers’ contribution to nursing care insurance. Under the point “Gender equality” the SPD calls for “binding rules for more women in leadership positions”. The document also calls for investment in infrastructure and education, the introduction of a financial transaction tax and a “growth strategy for Europe”.

As the party responsible for the Agenda 2010, the SPD inaugurated the most far-reaching attacks on the German welfare state since the Second World War. During the election campaign it had sought to conceal its anti-social program with a few reformist phrases, calling for tax increases for the wealthy and the abolition of the childcare allowance scheme introduced by the CDU.

The SPD has now dropped these demands in order to signal its utter readiness to cooperate with the Union. In return, sections of the CDU and CSU are prepared to support the social democratic demand for a minimum wage.

In an interview with Spiegel Online Thuringia CDU premier Christine Lieberknecht declared: “Like the SPD, I want a minimum wage for the whole of Germany”. The only reservation she raises is that the minimum wage should not be determined by parliament but rather by an independent commission.

The demand for a minimum wage plays a key role in preparing the reactionary agenda of a grand coalition in several ways. Firstly, the living standards of low-income earners would not be improved by the introduction of a low minimum wage. Instead the measure would serve to relieve the state of the requirement to subsidise existing low wages. Experts expect savings of up to 4 billion euros per year. The minimum wage would also constitute a benchmark which would generally depress wages. Secondly, it is a measure that has the firm support of the trade unions, the Left Party and pseudo-left organizations, and would serve to integrate them into a grand coalition dedicated to attacking social welfare.

The Greens also support an all-party alliance directed against the vast majority of the population. They also held a conference last weekend at which they revamped their entire leadership, with the stated goal of preparing the party for future coalitions with the CDU. The Green Party’s nine-hours of exploratory talks with the CDU last week were presented as a great success despite the fact that the Union parties turned down the Green overtures. Cem Ozdemir, the only leading Green to be re-elected, declared that there had been an amazing amount of agreement on both sides during the talks.

In fact, of even more importance than the ten “essential” requirements of the SPD are the questions not raised publicly in the negotiations for the next coalition.

These include democratic rights. This issue was not an issue at the SPD conference despite the revelations by Edward Snowden that both the NSA and the German BND were carrying comprehensive spying on millions of citizens. Also not raised was the evident involvement of the German intelligence services in the criminal activities and murders carried out by the neo-fascist “National Socialist Underground”. Based on a program of massive social attacks, both the CDU and SPD agree that existing authoritarian structures of power be maintained and expanded.

The plight of refugees was also not included in the SPD shopping list, although some SPD politicians had hypocritically lamented the deaths of 360 refugees in Lampedusa two weeks ago.

Another issue that remains under wraps is Germany’s future foreign policy, although this is perhaps the sphere where the greatest changes will take place. Both the SPD and Union agree that in the future Germany must play a more aggressive role in both Europe and the world but they prefer not to address the theme publicly.

The German media and semi-official think tanks have long been calling for a revival of German Great Power politics. Last week the SWP research institute published a detailed study on the topic titled, “New power, New responsibility”. This text, which was drawn up together with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF, Washington) demands that Germany take more responsibility in Europe and internationally.

In a report on the study on the news portal Global Europe, the 85-year-old journalist Hermann Bohle writes: “German readiness to accept responsibility can only unfold in a European dimension. Previously Bismarck had complained (on March 1, 1870 to the North German Reichstag), the fear of responsibility ‘is a disease of our time’. Little has changed in German states up to 2013, but it will have to”.

The reference to March 1 is significant. Just four months later Bismarck did assume “responsibility” by provoking the Franco-German war, which inaugurated Germany’s role as a Great Power.

In view of the “American decline”, which assumes ever more drastic forms with the growing US debt and budget crisis, Bohle writes that the US is only partly able “to guarantee the international order as a global hegemon”. As a result the incoming Berlin coalition must assume more responsibility in world politics.

In its decision in favour of a grand coalition the SPD is aggressively pursuing the tradition of German power politics, in which the party played a central and devastating role when it voted in favour of war credits to usher in the First World War a hundred years ago.

It is no coincidence that the reactionary media have cheered the SPD decision. On Monday Die Welt commented: “These social democrats can be proud of themselves”. The SPD “which began as a protector of the poor, and advocate of those seeking to educate and advance themselves, is there for the country when it needs them”. Once again they have placed nation before party. “Germany owes a great deal to the 150 year old social democracy’.