Spd before the vote on the groko: split at the core

Juso leader Kuhnert is fighting SPD leader Schulz for the GroKo. But the rift goes much deeper than "left versus right."

For Martin Schulz, it’s also about political survival Photo: dpa

SPD leader Martin Schulz must be afraid of people like Anna Spaenhoff. "I will definitely vote against the Groko on Sunday," says Spaenhoff, 29. She snorts, leans forward, the amber pendant on her necklace dancing. "A joke," she says, is a pension level of 48 percent, the exploratory result far too noncommittal, the CDU and CSU not taking the SPD seriously.

Spaenhoff, a student of politics and a member of the Juso state executive committee in North Rhine-Westphalia, wants to prevent what the assembled SPD leadership around Martin Schulz is promoting. No new alliance with the CDU and CSU. Not another four-year ordeal at Merkel’s side. Spaenhoff is convinced that the SPD must renew itself in the opposition.

It is not alone in this. The SPD is torn as seldom before. At the party convention on Sunday in Bonn, 600 delegates will decide on coalition negotiations with the CDU/CSU. Schulz and the SPD leadership are campaigning for a yes vote. If the opponents of the coalition get their way, no stone would be left unturned in the SPD. Schulz would probably be finished, and the rest of the leadership would be damaged.

So will the party resign itself to the seemingly inevitable, as it so often does? Or is an earthquake looming?

Social issues seemed more important than the environment

Spaenhoff comes from a Social Democratic family. Her grandfather was Dortmund’s former mayor, the train driver and trade unionist Willi Spaenhoff, who died in 2006. Her father used to head Dortmund’s civil services, and her mother is a school secretary. Anna Spaenhoff is the first in the family to study.

The 28-page exploratory paper lies in front of her on the wooden table in a bistro on Dortmund’s Friedensplatz. Spaenhoff joined the SPD at the age of 20 after completing a voluntary social year in a children’s home. There she helped children whose parents were alcoholics or who had experienced violence. She also found the Greens interesting, she says, "but social issues seemed more important to me than environmental protection."

Shortly after the exploratory talks, the comrades wanted to renegotiate

Young, smart and committed – women like Spaenhoff are the future of the SPD. By promoting coalition negotiations, the party leadership could now drive away the very people it desperately needs to renew the party. The Jusos are the leaders of the revolt against the grand coalition, and they are channeling the skepticism of the grassroots with a clever campaign. They post on Facebook and Twitter, paint posters, and their eloquent chairman Kevin Kuhnert tirelessly toured the Republic all week.

Handshakes and kisses

The citizens have voted out the Groko, says Kuhnert. And the AfD must not be left to lead the opposition. The irony here is that Kuhnert is putting forward almost word-for-word the same arguments that Martin Schulz used against government participation after the Bundestag elections.

Martin Schulz, 62, meets his opponents in Dusseldorf on Tuesday evening. In front of a hotel on the edge of the city center, about 50 Jusos are rallying against the grand coalition. "#NoGroKo" and "no GroKolores" is written on their signs. "Never, never, never again Groko," they shout. One of them beats a drum with all his might.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s SPD chairman Michael Groschek and his secretary general Svenja Schulze wait for long minutes in the rain at the hotel driveway until Schulz’s black limousine finally pulls up. Groschek gives him an encouraging handshake, Schulz a little kiss for the party leader.

Now a gauntlet could follow. The way to the meeting room is about 100 meters long, Schulz has to pass through the group of angry Jusos. But he defuses the situation with aplomb: Smiling, he approaches them, briefly glances at one of their flyers. One of them accuses him of ignoring the will of the voters and giving the AfD "an even bigger stage for its racist agitation. Authoritarian-structured types would now react with an outburst of rage.

Scratched authority continues to crumble

Schulz doesn’t. He simply waves his hand through the hair of the Juso who has handed him the note – like a kind grandfather who pro forma reprimands his somewhat cheeky grandson, but is secretly pleased about his self-confidence. "Hey," the Juso protests loudly – but the ice is broken: The party offspring, as well as Schulz, Groschek and Schulze, laugh in relief.

Kevin Kuhnert, Juso leader

No matter what we do on Sunday, it will hurt some. But we will work together to implement what is decided there.

Schulz said later that there was a "lively debate process" in his party. He expects the same from the delegates on Sunday. Lively debate process? It speaks for Schulz that he has not lost his sense of humor. Several state associations have spoken out against the Groko. Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, Berlin. One could watch Schulz’s already tarnished authority crumble further in recent days.

On Friday a week ago, after an all-night negotiating session, he joined the chancellor in effusively praising the exploratory paper. "I believe we have achieved excellent results." Some in the SPD thought that was a tactical error: after all, no one could overlook the fact that the paper contains painful compromises – and that the SPD was unable to push through important goals such as a citizens’ insurance plan.

"Here comes our media star"

Just a few hours later, top comrades who had themselves helped negotiate demanded improvements. SPD Vice President Ralf Stegner made the abolition of permanent contracts a condition for a coalition. Malu Dreyer, Queen of Hearts in the SPD, and Berlin’s Governing Mayor Michael Muller seemed to be cautiously backing away from their yes to the Groko. It looked as if the SPD no longer trusted the compromise with the CDU/CSU. Schulz even called for someone to please support him – it sounded desperate.

While the SPD leadership broke out into a cacophony after the exploratory talks, the Groko opponents reacted quickly, clearly and decisively. Kuhnert, the rebel, commented laconically on Twitter, "If Schulz and Seehofer both think the result is ‘excellent’ for their parties, then at least one is wrong." 1,200 likes, just under 350 retweets.

"Here comes our media star," quips an elderly comrade on Tuesday evening in Berlin, as Kuhnert makes his way through cameramen, photographers and journalists. Even Norwegian television is there. Kuhnert, 28, is wearing a blue sweatshirt, jeans. The Friedenau district is in the affluent south of the capital. Those who are in the SPD here tend to belong to the academic middle class. The SPD local association is dominated by civil servants, teachers, senate employees.

Well-mannered rebel

Kuhnert is "the Kevin" here. It’s a home game; his mentor was a local SPD deputy. He hugs a few female comrades and talks for half an hour, fluently, without a script. He waves his arms, gestures, extends his index finger, bounces his legs. Kuhnert is a communication talent. In a few weeks, he has risen from a nobody to Martin Schulz’s opponent.

The rows of chairs are tight in the small room. Parquet floor, white brick wall. A dignified interior. On the wall hangs a poster of the youth organization Die Falken: "Friendship instead of Fatherland. In the background, a pair of scissors is cutting up the German flag. But that is just a relic of an old radicalism. Kuhnert is the opposite. Pragmatic, eloquent, reasonable.

"Sunday," he says, "will be difficult. We have to do this in a civilized way." Demurely. Anyone who talks like that is not a rebel who wants to chase away the party establishment. That’s the sound of someone you can imagine in a few years as a state secretary in the Ministry of Finance rather than with a megaphone at the G20 demo. "We have a representation problem at the top of the SPD," he says. The skepticism of the grassroots comes up short, he says, even though there have already been six no votes in the party executive. "That’s something. I’m glad about that."

In the past, there would be "something on the face"

Faction leader Andrea Nahles has poured oil on the fire and accused the Groko opponents of "wantonly badmouthing" the exploratory talks – in other words, merely engaging in obdurate fundamental opposition. If the party leadership had attacked Nahles, then head of the Young Socialists, in this way 20 years ago, she would probably have immediately given the leadership a rhetorical "kick in the teeth. Kuhnert is different, civilized. He refrains from the obvious counterattack, preferring to praise Nahles’ pension concept.

Kuhnert, a politician with a lot of experience, combines the differentiated with the decisive. He praises the SPD negotiators: "They didn’t negotiate sloppily, but got the most out of it" – just too little. He intersperses a joke that warms SPD tempers. He recently bumped into Alexander Dobrindt in a corridor of the Willy Brandt House, who wanted to start a conservative revolution – in the sanctuary of the SPD. It has come a long way.

Kuhnert also finds good things in the exploratory paper, praising the Bafog increase and that interns should get money – an old Juso demand. But on migration, he says, the CSU got its way, with a de facto upper limit of 220,000 migrants that "will not be exceeded."

That nobody leaves the SPD

This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always available from Saturday on the newsstand, in the eKiosk or in the practical weekend subscription. And around the clock on Facebook and Twitter.

So he picks the paper apart like a lawyer gleefully tearing a holey indictment to shreds. Right to return to full-time work? Was already in the coalition agreement in 2013. "If the CDU/CSU wants to make new agreements with the SPD, it should first pay its old debts," says Kuhnert. He appeals to the ethos of honorable businessmen. That’s no way for a populist to talk and take the public by surprise.

Is this supposed to be the nightmare of the SPD leadership? The naysayer on duty – this authoritative, almost too old-fashioned young politician? At the end of his plea, Kuhnert worries whether "the store will stay together after the super-complicated party conference" – a precautionary appeal that just nobody leaves the SPD. "No matter what we do on Sunday, it will hurt some. But we will implement together what is decided there."

The female comrades in Friedenau are enthusiastic. Almost all of them – the gray-mottled gentlemen in suits, the 35-year-old academic, the older ladies in costumes – are skeptical about Groko, Merkel, "Keep it up. The air is stuffy. The debate lasts almost two and a half hours.

Not only between left and right

Kuhnert also counters critical questions, wisely warns against the illusion that decisive improvements can be made in renegotiations. "We also wouldn’t like it if the CSU were to demand hard-core upper limits after the exploratory talks." Always fairness in mind, never zealous. Then he warns against tricks by the party leadership, which – as with the quickly forgotten promise to negotiate "open-endedly" with the CDU/CSU – likes to raise colorful balloons and make cloudy promises at party conventions.

His talk has two weak points. For the faltering EU, a government with the SPD is better than one without. The other weak point is the prospect that "we will end up with 15 percent plus in new elections," as one comrade in Friedenau warns. This is the dilemma that the SPD leadership is increasingly pointing out: a new election could turn into a disaster.

In Friedenau, it is a high-level debate, far from the SPD local club cliche with beer, slogans, old men. Here, it seems more like a debating circle looking for the best solution. In the end, 19 comrades in the left-wing local association vote for coalition negotiations, only 15 for Kuhnert’s position. The rift in the SPD is not just between left and right. It runs through the individual party members themselves. "It feels like shit to vote for it," one comrade shouts at the Juso leader, who has just voted for coalition negotiations.

First confusion, then order again

This inconsistency among the Social Democrats is also typical. They enthusiastically applaud their rebel and then vote for the Groko. The SPD, a docile, statist party, has repeatedly decided against its own interest and for the country in its 154-year history.

During the week, supporters formed around Martin Schulz. Nahles campaigned for negotiations and warned against fueling illusions with requests for improvements. Dreyer cautiously corrected herself. The vast majority of the Bundestag faction – including the left of the party – is in favor of negotiations. 12 SPD mayors from major cities spoke out. The opportunity to shape "must not be turned down."

First confusion, now order again, that is – even if not intended – dramaturgically quite clever. Confidence is growing in the Willy Brandt House. "The No faction," it says, "gets at most a third of the vote in Bonn." The most important allies are the unions.

On Thursday afternoon, Schulz stands next to DGB head Reiner Hoffmann in front of the cameras in the foyer of party headquarters. Party and unions side by side. Just like before. Schulz says, "I’m doing fine." The DGB boss praises him for his commitment to Europe.

What for the young?

Schulz is silent and smiles. Six union leaders stand behind the two, silently lined up next to the bronze Willy Brandt statue. As living proof that the labor movement absolutely wants the grand coalition. But there is still rumbling in the SPD in NRW. Some there believe the party needs more. The SPD should only go into the Groko with the abolition of permanent contracts, they suggest.

Behind the word monstrosity lies something concrete. Hundreds of thousands of young people are now only given temporary contracts, without employers having to justify this. Many young people live under precarious conditions, earn less than permanent employees; they can only dream of security and a life plan that extends beyond the end of the next temporary contract. A classic SPD issue. But the CDU/CSU is opposed to any changes. The issue is not even mentioned in the exploratory paper.

Schulz doesn’t think it’s that urgent. He says that it will be discussed again with the CDU/CSU in the coalition negotiations. But please don’t make it a precondition. And what about Stegner, who made the unlimited fixed-term contracts a condition? Schulz reinterprets his sentence without further ado: Stegner had "not drawn a red line."

On his long journey from "Groko – never!" to "Groko – what else?", the SPD leader seems to have developed an elastic concept of truth.

Would Anna Spaenhoff, the young woman from Dortmund, actually leave the SPD if there were another Groko? "Oh, for goodness sake – no." Spaenhoff has to laugh. Of course, she will continue to promote the Juso position among members if the party conference gives its okay. But even if the end result was another grand coalition, Spaenhoff would stick with it. "After all, it’s about getting a good social democracy there in the next few years as well."

Martin Schulz seems to be able to rely on his SPD.

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