The future of Germany‘s ruling coalition looked shaky after candidates demanding a shift in policies were elected the new leaders of the Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner of the coalition government.
Two strong left-wing critics of the coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel‘s conservatives – Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken – won the SPD leadership vote on Saturday, possibly putting the country, Europe’s largest economy, at a political crossroads.
Their ascendancy raises the chances of an early election or minority government if the SPD leaves the coalition, which could trigger political instability at a time when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has become the country’s third-largest party.
Walter-Borjans and Esken, who ran on a joint ticket, want to renegotiate the coalition deal to focus more on social justice, investment and climate policies, setting them on collision with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
For now, party heavyweights on both sides have urged calm.
The head of the CDU and Merkel’s would-be successor as chancellor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, urged the Social Democrats to remain part of the government, adding the current coalition agreement provided the basis to move forward.
“I think it is good that the SPD has made a decision,” she said. “It paves the way to return to business. For the CDU it is quite clear: we stand by this coalition. We stand by this coalition on the basis that has been negotiated.”
CDU General-Secretary Paul Ziemiak also stressed that “nothing has changed” in terms of the coalition deal between both sides.
Leading voices in SPD have also underlined the responsibility of keeping the government stable.
The SPD’s former chief Martin Schulz, meanwhile, warned his party against flight from the government.
“My advice is that the cure is not to seek an escape from the government, rather it lies in the power to shape things in the government,” he told Tagesspiegel daily.
Walter-Borjans and Esken beat Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz, who said they would support their rivals. SPD delegates are set to approve the leadership – elected via a party ballot that ended Saturday – at a party conference starting on December 6. They will also vote on whether to remain in the coalition.
In the latest sign that established party tie-ups are being tested, a three-way coalition consisting of CDU, SPD and the Greens agreed on Sunday on a government deal in Saxony, where the AfD came in second in a September election.
Merkel, 65, has been in power since 2005 and has said she will not seek re-election at the next national election, due in 2021. The CDU is trying to boost its image and appeal to hold its position as the leading governing party after she goes.