01 November 2005

SPD all over the place

In the last 24 hours, big things have happened in German politics. There have been developments which, it would seem, noone had predicted. As a result, everything but everything is up in the air again.

The background is this: after the general election in September, neither of the major parties (meaning the Social Democrats -
SPD - and the Christian Democrats - CDU and CSU) had enough support to form a government either alone or in coalition with a smaller party. After weeks of wrangling, it emerged that the only workable solution was a so-called Grand Coalition between the CDU/CSU (they are two parties, but form one faction, since the CSU exists only in Bavaria, and the CDU does not contest Bavaria) and the SPD. This coalition was agreed in principle by the three parties (two factions) involved. It was decided that Angela Merkel (CDU) would be the new Chancellor, that the leader of the SPD, Franz Müntefering, would be Deputy Chancellor and that the leader of the CSU, Edmund Stoiber would be Economics Minister, with a little bit of research and space travel thrown into his portfolio to keep him interested. So far, so good.

Then, the three parties sat down together to hammer out the details of their coalition agreement. This, they said two weeks ago when they began the talks, would take four weeks. By mid-November, they said, Germany would know once and for all who was leading them, how, and what they had planned. Coalition talks have been proceeding apace since then. But now, the SPD has really thrown the cat amongst the pigeons with an internal leadership battle which is threatening to tear the whole party apart and scupper a possible coalition agreement.

It's complicated, very complicated. Perhaps the best way is to explain it with a schoolyard analogy which everyone will be able to relate to.

You have to imagine that it's the lunchbreak at school. A football game is about to start, just as it does every lunchtime. As happens sometimes at schools which have only one playing field, this game is to include large sides, with people from different years and levels on both sides. Naturally, it's the older boys and girls who have the upper hand, even if some of the youngsters are in fact better footballers.

And just as happens every lunchtime, the two designated captains are picking out who they want to be on their team and what positions they want them to play in. Angela Merkel is captaining the blue team for the first time, though Edmund Stoiber doesn't really accept this and secretly reckons that she and he are co-captains. And since Gerhard Schröder, former captain of the red team, has decided he doesn't want to play anymore, Franz Müntefering has elevated himself from vice-captain to captain of the red team.

After initial wrangling over who gets to pick first, things go along swimmingly for the first few picks. The teams are starting to take shape. But then, a youngster, Andrea Nahles (who in our analogy is the equivalent of say a year seven girl) decides that she is fed up with sitting on the bench and announces that she wants to play in an important position - centre half. She announces this loudly to all and sundry, after the captain of the red team, Franz Müntefering, has already said that he wants his friend from year nine, Kajo Wasserhövel, to play in that position. The thing is, you see, Nahles used to be captain of the junior red team, and people - especially Müntefering - remember very clearly that she is very left-footed. But Müntefering, bearing in mind that it's the blue team they're up against, is looking for people who can play with both feet, even favouring the right foot where necessary. Besides, he thinks that Nahles is a little upstart and is annoyed that she's challenging his authority as captain. Who does she think she is, this little left-footed year seven!?

Since neither Wasserhövel/Müntefering, nor Nahles will back down, the senior players on the team decide to have a vote on who they think should play centre half. The result surprises everyone: a large majority fancies giving the left-footed Nahles a turn.

The captain of the red team, Müntefering, is hopping mad. He told the senior players whom he wanted at centre-half, and he reckons they picked someone else just to spite him. It's a direct challenge to his authority and he doesn't like it one bit. In a fit of rage, he picks up his ball and announces "This is my ball, and I'm not playing with her on the team. I'm taking my ball and I'm going home."

Naturally, the red team, who thought that this lunchtime they had a pretty good chance against the blue team, are pretty shocked and up in arms. This is not what was supposed to happen! A great deal of discussion and disagreement breaks out amongst the red ranks. Some think that Nahles was right to want to have a go. Some think that Nahles is a cheeky little upstart who has unleashed a disaster she could never have fathomed. Some think that Müntefering is right to take his ball and go home. Some think that Müntefering is being a spoilt brat and should adjust to the new line-up and keep playing. Some don't know what they think yet. But everyone knows that this is a Very Bad Thing, not least because they haven't a clue who would make a good red team captain if Müntefering really does go home. And they don't know where to get another ball from either.

Meanwhile, all is not well on the blue team either. After watching all this unfold with mouths agape in surprise, the players on the blue team initially rubbed their hands with glee, thinking they could definitely capitalise on this situation. If the red team doesn't know who's in charge, those on the blue team thought to themselves, then we will definitely have the upper hand in picking the rest of the teams and deciding on the rules. But the blue team had forgotten about Edmund Stoiber.

You see, Eddie is in his final year. He's been around a long time. He's an important player. Noone really likes him, but they recognise that he's a key player. Usually though, he plays cricket at lunchtime, at the other end of the playground. This lunchtime, Angela Merkel and the other senior players on the blue team had talked him into playing football with them, because they needed him to mark Müntefering. Stoiber, after much umming and ahhing, had finally agreed. But now he starts thinking to himself, "Well, if Franz Müntefering isn't playing, then I don't think I want to play either. Football without getting to mark Franz will suck!"

Eddie Stoiber mumbles this to a few people who are standing around wondering what happens next. Pretty soon, the rumour that Eddie is going back to the other end of the playground to play cricket gains currency. And soon enough it's being talked about as if it's a certainty. No matter how much they might think they need him, the blue team are not going to have the services of Eddie Stoiber this lunchtime. Cricket, after all, is way better.

And while Eddie Stoiber makes up his mind, over on the red team Andrea Nahles is having second thoughts. Maybe, she thinks, the bench wasn't so bad after all. And the other players are thinking to themselves, maybe if we can convince Nahles to wait a few lunchtimes before asking to play in such an important position, Franz Müntefering will come back and play after all. Noone's really sure, but they're fervently hoping that's what might happen.

Needless to say, all this mess on both teams leaves Angela Merkel, captain of the blue team, who thought she'd won the toss and would get to kick off, in a very difficult position. It is no longer clear who is going to be captain of the red team, or who is going to play in which positions on that side. And now she's losing her centre forward as well. In fact, it's no longer entirely clear that the game is going to take place this lunchtime at all. They may very well have to pick new teams next lunchtime, because the bell is about to go.

[Note: If that was all a bit cryptic for you, this key might help. In the above, the blue team is the CDU/CSU and the red team is the SPD. The position of centre-half is the post of General Secretary of the SPD. Year seven is around 35 years of age. Year nine is mid-forties. Final year is beyond sixty. Captain of the junior red team is the position of leader of the so-called Jusos, or Young Social Democrats. The senior players on the red team are the Central Committee of the SPD. Left-footedness represents belonging to the left-wing faction within the SPD, while right-footedness represents belonging to the right-wing faction of the SPD, the so-called Seeheimer Kreis. The ability to play with both feet represents the centrist faction within the SPD. Cricket at the other end of the playground represents Bavarian state politics, where Edmund Stoiber has until now been State President. Winning the toss and kicking off is getting the keys to the Chancellor's office. Pciking new teams next lunchtime represents a new election.]

To see what actually happened without all the anologies, try these news stories: BBC News (in English, but pretty poor coverage to be honest); Deutsche Welle (also in English, and much better).

And to see what the German press is saying about all this malarkey, try this Deutsche Welle press round-up.

Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

[Update: I've found much better coverage in English of this debacle: Spiegel Online English Version]