Merkel’s fate in SPD hands as members vote on power pact

Germany's Social Democrats start campaigning on Saturday ahead of a party referendum that spells the last threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel's hopes of forming a new government, five months after inconclusive elections.

Merkel's fate in SPD hands as members vote on power pact
Photo: DPA
In a vote expected to be tight, the more than 460,000 members of the deeply divided centre-left SPD will cast their ballots on a plan to enter a new coalition as junior partners to Merkel's conservatives.
The vote, which starts on Tuesday, comes as the 153-year-old labour party's ratings are in freefall, with latest polls giving it just 16 percent support — only one point ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
If the SPD rank-and-file give the thumbs up in the results to be announced on March 4th, veteran leader Merkel will likely launch her fourth-term government by late March. If they vote no, Germans will probably head back to the polls for snap
elections, prolonging the political limbo in Europe's biggest economy and threatening the end of Merkel's 12-year reign.
A tense SPD leadership hopes that the restive party troops will back their plans for a new “grand coalition”, dubbed “GroKo”, despite deep-seated fears the party will suffer further in the shadow of Merkel.
Polls now suggest two-thirds of SPD voters support another right-left alliance, but the mood of active party members is hard to gauge.
Both camps are set to criss-cross the country from Saturday, when the SPD's designated next leader Andrea Nahles and caretaker chief Olaf Scholz will speak in the northern city of Hamburg.
Few dare make any predictions about the ballot given the volatile mood in the party, which scored a historic low of 20.5 percent in the September elections and has been ruptured by harsh infighting. 
The party's youth and left wings are driving a concerted #NoGroKo campaign, backed by some regional chapters. They argue that the party must recover and rebuild in opposition — which would force Merkel to opt for a minority government or face new elections — rather than betray its cherished ideals in another grab for power.
“If we're scared of new elections, we may as well close up shop,” argues youth wing leader Kevin Kuehnert, 28.
The SPD's credibility and electoral fortunes have been badly bruised by a series of U-turns, which on Tuesday saw election loser Martin Schulz glumly resign as leader after less than a year in the post.
Schulz, the third candidate in a row defeated by Merkel, had declared minutes after the election debacle that he would take the party into opposition to rebuild its combative spirit. However, he later reversed that decision when Merkel's initial attempts to form a separate alliance with two smaller parties failed.
In arduous negotiations, Schulz's team managed to wrest some policy pledges, and the foreign, finance and other crucial cabinet posts, from Merkel's conservatives. However, his subsequent grab for the post of top diplomat, after he had earlier ruled out personally serving in a Merkel cabinet, was seen as one broken promise too many and sparked a party outcry.
 'Heal wounds'
Schulz said he hoped that “time will heal the wounds” as he stepped down, and announced that Nahles would soon take over.
As the party tries to recover from the damaging turmoil, Kuehnert is pushing on with a passionate campaign to torpedo the GroKo deal. His Jusos (Young Socialists) organisation has controversially urged voters to join the party with the sole purpose of preventing another Merkel power pact, arguing that any common ground the two big parties once had has been used up.
The ballot-box pain of Germany's two mainstream parties was in large part a result of the rise of the anti-Islam AfD. Railing against a mass influx of refugees that peaked in 2015 under the previous GroKo, the populists won almost 13 percent of the vote with their Germany-first rhetoric and angry demand that “Merkel must go”.
If the SPD referendum fails, both major parties fear the likely result will be fresh elections and a further boost for the AfD.
By AFP's Frank Zeller and Yannick Pasquet


Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
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‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.