(CN) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition partners, the struggling center-left Social Democrats, picked a pair of left-leaning politicians to lead the party, a surprise move that will seriously test the so-called grand coalition with Merkel's conservatives.
On Saturday, the membership of the Social Democrats elected two relatively unknown politicians to take the reins of a party with a storied history in Germany but which has suffered dramatic election defeats in recent years and seen its support erode.
The party's new leaders – Saskia Esken, a parliamentary member, and Norbert Walter-Borjans, a former regional minister – have criticized their party's willingness to govern with Merkel's Christian Democrats and called for more social spending and investment on infrastructure.
German politics are keenly watched because Germany is the most populous and wealthiest country in the European Union and it plays a critical role in EU affairs. Merkel is also Europe's most powerful leader and she has enormous clout in directing the EU.
Merkel's conservative party has struggled too since she won reelection for a fourth term in 2017. She has said she will not seek a fifth term in 2021.
Esken is a member of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, from Baden-Württemberg and Walter-Borjans served as a finance minister in North-Rhine-Westphalia. Neither politician is well-known even in Germany.
Esken became a member of the Bundestag in 2013 and has focused on issues related to the internet, such as digital privacy, security and the rights of consumers in the online world.
Walter-Borjans gained attention as a finance minister when he bought Swiss bank data from whistleblowers and pursued tax dodgers, netting $6.9 billion in recovered revenues.
The pair called on Merkel's Christian Democrats to open the purse strings and begin spending more. They campaigned for raising the minimum wage from about $10 to $13 and have called for raising taxes on the super-rich and spending more on schools, railways and roads.
By contrast, Merkel's conservatives see maintaining a balanced budget as a core principle underpinning Germany's success. But the country runs budget surpluses and its debt-averse economic policies often come under criticism for being too strict and cooling both Germany's economy and that of the rest of the EU.
The new Social Democratic leaders said they want a coalition agreement signed last year between the their party and Christian Democrats to be renegotiated in order to allow for their policy prescriptions to be included. But the Christian Democrats rejected that proposition and said they are not going to reopen the agreement.
Esken and Walter-Borjans took in 53% of the vote to beat a centrist duo led by Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. Scholz is also a vice chancellor and favors holding together the coalition with Merkel.
Despite the prospect of friction, political analysts do not expect the grand coalition to come unglued any time soon, largely because both parties face faring poorly at new elections.
If the coalition were to come undone, Merkel's Christian Democrats would likely seek to govern with a minority until new elections are slated for the fall of 2021. However, early elections could be called before that if a minority government is unable to function.
The Social Democrats – Germany's oldest political party with more than 150 years of history – have been clobbered in recent regional elections and the party has seen its vote share drop in national elections. In 2017, it picked up just over 20% of the vote but polls show its popularity has sunk to about 15%. The Greens have become the largest party on the left.
The Social Democrats have spent months of soul-searching and party rebuilding. Saturday's election signals that the party's rank-and-file members want to reclaim the party's mantle as one of social programs.
Since Merkel ousted the Social Democrats from the chancellery in 2005, the party has spent 10 out of the last 14 years as junior partners in the grand coalition. But many Social Democrats feel that the party's reputation has suffered after years of compromises with the Christian Democrats.
In Germany, though, the election of Esken and Walter-Borjans sparked a lot of negative reaction by the press – even from left-leaning newspapers – and concern that they could threaten the grand coalition and Germany's stability.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)