Angela Merkel’s political future was hanging in the balance on Saturday evening after the junior party in her coalition government voted for new leaders who reject her policies.
Members of the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest party, caused a political earthquake by electing a new Leftist leadership duo who have threatened to collapse the government.
The shock election result will see Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, relative political novices, take power. Olaf Scholz, the current acting leader and Mrs Merkel’s finance minister was defeated with his running mate Klara Geywitz.
The final result of 53 percent to 45 percent in the poll of 425,00 party members proved a smack in the face for Mr Scholz, a centrist who has made much of his working relationship with Mrs Merkel.
Given that almost the entire Bundestag faction backed Mr Scholz, the result also raises questions about how the winning duo plan to work with hostile MPs.
Ms Esken and Mr Walter-Borjans made clear during hustings that they are not prepared to remain in a coalition with the veteran Chancellor unless her party accede to a series of high-stakes demands, including extra billions in spending on infrastructure and a hike in the minimum wage.
The choice of whether to negotiate or not lies outside Ms Merkel’s hands. After handing over the party leadership to her protege Annagrete Kramp-Karrenbauer last year, her future rests on whether the younger woman is prepared to talk, something she has shown no intention of doing.
Already walking a tightrope between compromising with centre-left policies and placating their restive base, the CDU have little room for manoeuvre. In recent days Ms Kramp-Karrenabuer warned the coalition deal would “certainly not be renegotiated.”
The SPD’s new leadership still needs to be confirmed by delegates at party conference next weekend, where they will also flesh out demands for the future coalition with the CDU. If no agreement can be reached the CDU will have to decide whether to continue as a minority government or call fresh elections. Ms Merkel has made clear she will not run again at the next election.
With both parties slumping in the polls, pundits speculate that neither side is relishing the prospect of early elections.
Speaking after the result, Mr Walter-Borjans emphasised that the task ahead of them was to reach out to moderates, saying “this is not about winning or losing. Our common task is to bring this great party together.”
Wounded by an election rout in 2017, the SPD had initially sought to go into opposition, but allowed itself reluctantly to be coaxed into renewing an alliance with Mrs Merkel.
Many within the party however remained wary of continuing to govern in Mrs Merkel’s shadow, and the coalition has lurched from crisis to crisis.
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The SPD has also been battered by a series of regional and European election setbacks this year.
The leadership race was triggered by the departure of the party’s previous leader, Andrea Nahles, after the party’s poor showing in European Parliament elections.