The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Merkel’s fate in the balance, would-be partners prepare to vote in Germany

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel leave the Elysee palace after their meeting in Paris on Jan. 19. Merkel was in Paris for a one-day work visit. (Tesson/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)

BERLIN — Germany's long and tortuous path to a new government could hit another obstacle Sunday.

Four months after the nation's voters delivered a muddled message, Chancellor Angela Merkel's would-be coalition partners will cast ballots on a contentious question that could determine whether an election rerun is needed. 

At issue in the Sunday balloting is an agonizing choice for the approximately 600 delegates attending the center-left Social Democratic Party's convention in Bonn: keep talking to Merkel about a deal to prop up her conservative-led government, or abandon the talks and face Germany's disgruntled voters again. 

Leaders of the party, known as the SPD, admit that neither option is attractive.

"Sometimes you have to choose between bad and worse," said Ralf Stegner, a deputy party chairman. "That is the choice we have now."

Stegner, like other SPD leaders, advocates sticking with the talks, which are aimed at creating a "grand coalition" between the two traditionally dominant parties. 

But the parties' dominance is a far cry from what it used to be, and the popularity of the Social Democrats, in particular, has fallen precipitously during Merkel's 12 years in power — a stretch that has included eight years as second fiddle to the chancellor's Christian Democratic Union. In the September vote, the SPD won just 20 percent, its lowest level in German postwar history.

Given that record, opponents of a deal within the SPD are waging an insurgent campaign to abandon the talks. The drive has been led by the party's youth wing, where left-leaning activists have grown impatient with efforts to negotiate another agreement with conservatives. 

"We need a new start," said Annika Klose, Berlin leader of the Young Socialists, the SPD's youth wing. She cited Britain's Labour Party and the Bernie Sanders-led faction of America's Democrats, both of which have swerved left.

"The SPD needs to look at these examples and see what they can learn from them," she said. 

If SPD delegates do vote Sunday against continuing the talks — and analysts say that is possible, though somewhat unlikely — then Germany's messy struggle to create a new government could stretch well into the summer.

Already, the process has gone on longer than ever before. Merkel, whose CDU was a weak first-place finisher in the September vote, initially tried to forge a "Jamaica coalition" with the business-friendly Free Democrats and the pro-environment Greens. (The three parties' colors match those of the Caribbean nation's flag.) That effort collapsed when the Free Democrats unexpectedly walked out. 

With no other viable option for a stable government, Merkel turned to the SPD, which, under pressure, eventually reversed an earlier vow to stay out of coalition talks and go into opposition.

If negotiations with the SPD implode, analysts say new elections are likely. Merkel — whose public image has suffered amid the gridlock — has not said whether she would lead her party in another campaign, and CDU lieutenants say they are not sure what she would do. 

Polls show that a new election would not necessarily yield a different result from the one voters delivered in September. Most parties remain at roughly the same level as they were then, although the SPD had fallen two points in at least one recent survey. 

The prospect of an even worse result for the party may be one of the most important factors arguing for a deal. A new election, said Stegner, "would be a tough challenge for our party because the public would say this is the fault of the SPD that we didn't even want to enter negotiations. We can't afford this."

An election, he said, could also favor "right-wing populists who say these parties don't have their act together" — a reference to Alternative for Germany, which last fall became the first far-right party to enter the German Parliament in more than half a century.

The SPD and the CDU have reached a preliminary deal for governing. But even if Social Democratic delegates vote Sunday to forge ahead, that's not the final hurdle. There will be weeks of additional negotiation, with any final deal going to yet another vote — this one by the party's 450,000 members.

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