A congress of the Social Democratic Party formally endorsed a membership ballot's choice of the left-leaning duo of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans as co-leaders. In that membership ballot, whose results were announced last weekend, members rejected a rival team of Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Klara Geywitz that clearly favored staying in Merkel's coalition and was backed by the party establishment.
The congress formally ends a six-month leadership hiatus for the struggling center-left party after former leader Andrea Nahles quit following a dismal performance in European Parliament elections. But it was set to leave open questions about its future course.
Esken and Walter-Borjans have been more skeptical then their defeated rivals about staying in the “grand coalition” of what were traditionally Germany's biggest parties, but also stopped short of demanding an immediate departure halfway through the parliamentary term.
Merkel's center-right Union bloc has made clear that it isn't prepared to embark on a full renegotiation of the accord underpinning the coalition, which took office last year after the Social Democrats reluctantly agreed to enter the chancellor's fourth-term government.
On Friday, delegates backed a motion drawn up with the new leadership that calls for talks with the Union aimed at raising the national minimum wage, increasing public investment and raising the price of carbon dioxide in a recently agreed package of climate measures.
It was careful not to set specific targets, and avoided both setting a time limit and taking a clear position on the coalition's future. It said that the party leadership will evaluate the situation after the talks.
That didn't go far enough for some left-wingers, but their call for an immediate exit was easily defeated. The motion “is formulated in such a way that we can negotiate with the Union, with all respect and on a fair level, about the question of the ‘grand coalition’ continuing,” Esken said in a speech to delegates.
“I was and I am skeptical as far as the future of this ‘grand coalition’ is concerned. I haven't changed my mind,” she added. “But with this motion, we are giving the coalition a realistic chance of continuing — no more but also no less.”
However long the coalition lasts, Esken pledged to implement “steadfast Social Democratic politics” in it. Walter-Borjans underlined his skepticism about the Merkel government's policy of keeping the German budget balanced, a policy known as the “black zero” that Scholz — who is finance minister as well as vice chancellor — has helped implement.
“If the black zero stands against a better future for our children, then it is wrong — then it must go,” Walter-Borjans said. That also goes for the “debt brake,” a rule that limits new borrowing, he added.
“We are in this coalition and we are in a democracy, and we must be prepared to make compromises,” he said. “But they must be justifiable and they must not obscure what we stand for.” Esken won the backing of 75.9% of delegates at Friday's meeting to become co-leader and Walter-Borjans won 89.2%. Both ran unopposed. But they face a tougher job to win over the wider German public.
Polls currently show support for the Social Democrats at 13 or 14%. That compares with their already poor showing of 20.5% in the 2017 election; support for Merkel’s Union bloc is about twice as high and the Social Democrats also have fallen behind the Greens, traditionally smaller rivals on the left.
If the Social Democrats do in the end decide to walk out of the coalition, it’s unclear what would happen. Merkel’s bloc could seek to carry on in a minority government or, theoretically at least, negotiate an alternative coalition; or the result could eventually be an early election.
Merkel has said that this will be her final term. The next election is currently due in the fall of 2021.