GOERLITZ/COTTBUS, Germany (Reuters) - Cozying up to Angela Merkel, putting power above principles and jeopardising the party’s identity: this is how Social Democrats in the eastern German town of Goerlitz see their leaders’ call to share power with the conservative chancellor.
They fear that renewing a coalition with the conservatives that has governed Germany since 2013 will further alienate voters, who in September handed the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) its worst election result since the post-war republic was founded in 1949.
SPD leader Martin Schulz’s decision to renege on an election promise to end the alliance and go into opposition has provoked strong resistance in the party. His U-turn, made after Merkel failed to agree a deal with two smaller parties, has cast doubt on whether the 440,000 SPD members will approve a final coalition programme that he is negotiating with the chancellor.
“This is a fight about our identity,” said Gerhild Kreutziger, a 59-year-old educational consultant who leads the SPD’s 60-member branch in Goerlitz.
“The coalition negotiations are less about SPD policies and more about continuing a harmonious coalition with Merkel. How can you implement good policies if you don’t clash?,” she added, discussing the state of the party with two SPD colleagues in a local cafe.
Goerlitz, a historic town on the Polish border, has experienced up and downs like many smaller east German communities since the fall of communism. It attracted investment from two major industrial employers, Siemens and Canada’s Bombardier, but both are now planning hundreds of layoffs locally.
The coalition negotiations with Merkel have split the SPD across Germany and sparked a debate about how the party, which last won a national election in 2002, can restore trust with working-class voters who had formed the backbone of its support.
The problem is not unique. Socialist parties across Europe, especially in the Netherlands, France and Italy, have bled support to rivals offering a nationalistic alternative to voters who feel threatened by globalisation and immigration.
Should Schulz agree terms with Merkel, SPD members will have to approve the deal in a postal ballot expected to be held in February.
Gauging the overall party mood is difficult. However, Kreutziger said 17 of the 20 members who attended a meeting in Goerlitz this month to discuss the ballot said they would vote against four more years with Merkel, convinced that the party could restore its credibility with voters only in opposition.
Gudrun Dreischaerf, a 71-year-old former SPD voter, accused Schulz of talking more about reforming the European Union than bread-and-butter issues such as job security - an especially sensitive issue in the post-communist east where unemployment at seven percent compares with five percent in the west.
Dreischaerf switched to the hard-left Linke party, whose founders included ex-members of the defunct east German communist party, in the late 1990s in protest at pro-market economic reforms by then SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
“Europe is not the top priority for people here,” she said outside the town hall in Cottbus, a largely working class city 100 km (60 miles) north of Goerlitz. “People want better jobs for their children. Temporary work and limited contracts were unheard of in my generation.”
But SPD members in Cottbus believe their party would bleed more support if it went into opposition. Many voters want it to govern with the conservatives to end deadlock resulting from Merkel’s failure to form a government with the Free Democrats and Greens.
Recent polls show the SPD falling below even the 20.5 percent it won in the inconclusive September vote.
“People are confused,” said SPD lawmaker Ulrich Freese, who represents Cottbus in the Bundestag.
“Some people won’t vote for us because we are not going into opposition,” he told Reuters. “On the other hand if we don’t go into government, many more wouldn’t want to vote for us because we would have denied them good policies in the fields of employment, welfare, education and Europe.”
In Cottbus, a majority of the 262 SPD members will vote for the coalition agreement, said Gerhard Wenzel, who manages the party’s office in the city.
Still, opponents of another alliance with Merkel put the party’s problems down to its record of serving as a junior coalition partner during two of her three terms in office.
This alienates leftist voters who have come to associate the SPD with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Christian Social Union (CSU) Bavarian allies. The SPD has also struggled to score points with the public for its signature policies such as a minimum wage and state pension increases, because the measures were implemented jointly with the conservatives.
“The CDU/CSU are good at taking credit for our policies as if they were their own,” said Bettina Kauschinger, a 53-year-old who works in a hospital in Goerlitz, discussing the SPD’s election campaign with Kreutziger.
Schulz lifted the SPD in opinion polls soon after his election as party leader a year ago, promising to make German society more equal.
But the surge fizzled out as his pitch failed to resonate in a country that overall has enjoyed a boom: the economy has grown in 11 of the 12 years Merkel has been in power and unemployment nationally is at a record low and falling.
Both camps in the SPD believe their party will have a better chance of winning once the chancellor finally goes.
A failure of the coalition talks would threaten her future and probably lead to an election re-run. Even if she succeeds, many Social Democrats doubt she will last a full term.
“She is not going to lead the conservatives in the next election,” Kreutziger predicted. “She will be gone, Schulz will also be gone and we will have a level playing field.”
But the party will have to do more than just hope Merkel steps down.
“I can’t tell the difference between the CDU/CSU and the SPD,” said Sophie Olschewski, a 20-year-old student in Cottbus who voted for the Linke. “I’d rather have a strong opposition.”
Editing by Paul Carrel and David Stamp