German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: REUTERS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture: REUTERS

Berlin  — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government was thrown into crisis on Sunday after Germany’s Social Democrats redrew the country’s political map by electing a new leadership seen as a threat to the survival of her coalition.

Merkel’s SPD vice-chancellor, Olaf Scholz, suffered a stinging defeat in his bid to lead the party as a membership ballot installed Norbert Walter-Borjans and legislator Saskia Esken, a duo supported by a restive party base that has been vocal in opposing the unloved alliance with Merkel. The terms of the new leadership will be laid bare at a three-day party conference starting on Friday.

In comments after the tandem’s victory on Saturday evening, Walter-Borjans said there was no intention to abruptly bolt the coalition. The SPD is more likely to put forward a set of demands, such as abandoning Merkel’s cherished balanced-budget stance and raising Germany’s minimum wage. Some may be red lines for Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc.

“I never said we need to leave,” Walter-Borjans, a former finance minister of North Rhine-Westphalia state, said after the ballot’s result was announced. “We must improve the policies and perhaps loosen the black zero,” he said, referring to Merkel’s budget pledge.

Scholz, Merkel’s finance minister who along with regional politician Klara Geywitz was defeated by a margin of 53% to 45%, did not comment on his future. He pledged to support his party’s new leadership.

The rebellion against the SPD establishment pushes Merkel a step closer to the exit after 14 years in power and leaves Europe’s biggest economy approaching a crossroads. Growth has faltered and populism is on the rise, while Merkel has been overshadowed by French President Emmanuel Macron and caught between a hostile US administration and an assertive China.

The decision signals a prolonged phase of political uncertainty in Germany that could hamper the European Union’s efforts to chart a path forward after Brexit and to wield its influence on the global stage.

Merkel said in 2018 that she would not run again but intends to serve out her term ending in 2021. She is due to meet Macron, President Donald Trump and other Nato leaders in London this week, followed by talks with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Paris on ending the conflict in Ukraine.

Scholz is scheduled to be in Brussels on Wednesday to broker a plan to complete the European banking union.

The Social Democrats’ leadership crisis was triggered in June when chair Andrea Nahles resigned after the SPD took a beating in the European election. The succession contest reopened a party split between establishment figures and the left, which has longed to exit the coalition and re-establish the SPD’s credentials with its working-class base.

After a tumultuous year in which the SPD and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union both faced power struggles and the economy flirted with recession, Germany’s political and business elites had hoped for a period of calm and continuity. Merkel made an unusual plea to see the alliance through to 2021, saying there was still much to be done.

But Walter-Borjans, who established a reputation for fighting tax cheats, and Esken, who has openly called for ending the coalition, tapped the dissatisfaction of Social Democrats who blame its decline in the polls on abandoning its roots.

Any break-up may become a drawn out process. In addition to a straight vote on leaving the coalition, there will be proposals at the SPD convention setting out conditions for staying, potentially paving the way for prolonged negotiations.

Merkel’s CDU said on Saturday that it expects the SPD to honour the 2018 coalition agreement. CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told delegates at its convention in Leipzig past week that she would refuse to renegotiate it.

“We want to govern Germany well, and for that we have a good basis” with the SPD, CDU general secretary Paul Ziemiak said after the result. “Today’s decision hasn’t changed this basis.”

The SPD leadership also has to weigh the merits of facing a possible early election when the party has slipped below 15% in about polls, compared with the 20.5% it took in the last election in 2017. The party is running neck-and-neck with the far-right Alternative for Germany, which elected a new co-chairman at a convention on Saturday.

Tino Chrupalla, a 44-year-old tradesman from the former communist east — a region where support for the anti-establishment party has surged — gives the nationalists a leader from a region where the party is strong. Chrupalla enjoys support of the party’s extreme-right wing but took a moderate tone, saying the party did not  need “drastic language” to win conservative voters who feel abandoned by Merkel’s bloc.

Bloomberg