Let’s all celebrate and have a good time

BEFORE the result in Germany of the Social Democrats’ (SPD) vote on joining a new grand coalition was announced on March 4th, Dietmar Nietan, the party’s treasurer, voiced his thanks to some 120 members who had helped count the votes in overnight secrecy. Cheers and applause echoed around the atrium of the SPD headquarters in Berlin. Then came the result. Of the 363,000 eligible votes cast by members of the party, over 66% were for joining a new “Groko” government. That produced a stony silence, saying something of the ambivalence with which Germany’s oldest party entered its third government with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), their Bavarian sister party, since 2005.

Both the CDU/CSU and the SPD obtained record-low vote shares at Germany’s election in September, after which the latter announced it was going into opposition for a spell of reflection and renewal. But the failure of coalition talks between the CDU/CSU, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens in November forced the reluctant centre-left party back into negotiations. The outcome means Mrs Merkel will be reappointed chancellor for a fourth term on March 14th, an unprecedented six months after the election. It is expected to be her last.

The price she paid was extensive SPD influence over both the coalition programme and her cabinet. Among the new government’s priorities are increased public investment on things like infrastructure and child care, and tightening rules on short-term job contracts. It calls for closer integration of the euro zone in co-operation with France, including the transformation of the European Stability Mechanism (the EU’s economic crisis firewall) into a stronger European Monetary Fund. The SPD also takes the powerful finance ministry, held from 2009 until last autumn by the CDU’s formidable Wolfgang Schäuble.

In return the CDU gets the economics and energy ministry (which goes to Peter Altmaier, the acting finance minister) and keeps both the defence ministry (still under Ursula von der Leyen, another Merkel loyalist) and the health ministry (which goes to Jens Spahn, a critic of the chancellor). Horst Seehofer, the conservative leader of the CSU, retains an interior ministry, now expanded to include “homeland” matters like immigrant integration. The only big question is which SPD figure will take the foreign ministry. It had been earmarked for Martin Schulz, the outgoing SPD leader, but following his withdrawal from top-level politics Heiko Maas, currently the justice minister, is now expected to get the key job.

Another part of the price of SPD participation in the new government was a commitment to more open disagreements and even a thrice-yearly “chancellor’s questions” session in the Bundestag. The idea is to make German government more lively and make political differences clearer. On hand to help with that is the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, which now becomes the country’s largest parliamentary opposition party. The position conveys no formal privileges, but the AfD’s prominence seems certain to inject a new degree of drama into Germany’s previously sleepy parliament.