Red-red-green exploratory talks: this will not be a love match

Members of parliament from the three parties discuss possible alliances. There will be no recriminations, but sympathy looks different.

Red-red-green can look so nice, but does it really fit together? Photo: dpa

It was a coup entirely to Sigmar Gabriel’s taste. A soberly furnished hall in the Jakob Kaiser House in Berlin-Mitte, around 100 members of parliament from the SPD, the Greens and the Left jostle for chairs, chat and supply themselves with chocolate cookies and filter coffee. The clandestinely planned meeting is something new; it is the first time that red-red-green is being discussed in such a large group. Could a left-wing alliance replace Merkel in 2017 – and if so, how?

The second row has come. The secretary general of the SPD is there, as are the federal executives of the Greens and the Left, plus several vice chairmen from the parliamentary groups. The bosses, i.e. the heads of the parties and parliamentary groups, were supposed to stay on the outside. Until, well, until the vice chancellor hurried past the cameras of the waiting journalists with quick steps and a broad smile on his face. In the hall, the surprise guest drops into the chair next to Claudia Roth. Just half an hour later, after a lecture by social philosopher Oskar Negt, Gabriel rushes out again – "Read files."

The message is obvious. Gabriel ennobles the until then moderately exciting get-to-know-you meeting with his presence – and thus heaves it into the headlines. The SPD leader, who will probably challenge Merkel himself in the 2017 federal election, is turning left. And he wants everyone to notice that, too. As the SPD’s candidate for chancellor, Gabriel would need a power option to interest voters and the media. Red-red-green is the most likely, even if the polls currently hardly offer this hope.

The age-old discussion about a red-red-green coalition in the federal government, which is fraught with futility, has been experiencing a renaissance for some time. The alliance option, long considered impossible because of the deep aversions of those involved, suddenly seems conceivable. Is red-red-green a possibility?

Known skeptics

The meeting of the 100 was deliberately designed to be cross-wing; well-known skeptics from all parties showed up. Several SPD members of parliament who belong to the pragmatic Seeheim Circle took part – for example, parliamentary party leader Dagmar Ziegler. For the Greens, Dieter Janecek, economic policy expert and coordinator of the realo wing, sat next to Michael Kellner, federal managing director, and Jurgen Trittin, former head of the parliamentary group. And on the left, Klaus Ernst, who used to loudly polemicize against the SPD as party leader, did the honors.

Exactly how the debate went is only revealed in telephone conversations with those involved. Journalists were asked to leave the room before the debate began. The secrecy seems somewhat absurd, especially since behind closed doors everyone emphasized how important the social debate about power options beyond the CDU/CSU was.

However, the intellectual framework was drawn by social philosopher Oskar Negt. Negt called on the parties to act in a "dignified, measured and serious" manner, participants reported. The latter would have to develop fields of action for a different policy. At the same time, he also admonished his guild. The intellectuals were called upon to accompany such a project. Negt had already spoken to the SPD, the Greens and the Left in a press conference. "It is necessary to recover the political language that was expropriated from the left." Negt spoke of the feeling of no longer being allowed to talk about socialism because it had failed. But people must be allowed to express dreams and utopias.

The altitude of the deputies’ discussion was not that high after all. "The tone was friendly, sober and thoughtful," the Green waiter summarized his impression. "No one reproached the other, the usual games were omitted." That can’t exactly be said of the practice of dealing with each other on a daily basis. As before, the three parties to the left of center are suspicious of each other in the lived, media public everyday life.

Differences emphasized

Differences are emphasized, not common ground. Provocative theses by individuals are readily taken by the would-be partners as an opportunity to condemn the respective party across the board. This can be observed time and again, most recently when Left Party leader Katja Kipping accused the Constitutional Court of "class justice" in an embarrassing tweet. Even in simple loosening exercises, the SPD, Left Party and Greens do not clap for each other in the Bundestag even when they agree on the matter.

At the meeting, however, several participants made out a different tone. For example, they said, there was an acceptance of the different roles. "Red-red-green would not be a love match," Kellner said. He thinks nothing of wishing for that option with rapturous eyes. "SPD, Greens and Left have different roles and have to serve different milieus."

Hovering over everything was the threat from the right. The AfD could enter the next Bundestag. "Many of us share a great concern about what is happening in Germany and Europe right now," said Left faction vice chair Jan Korte. The three parties are different, he said. "But one is sort of pushed together by the threatening situation." In any case, the coordinated conversation is to continue and be solidified. A next meeting in mid-December is scheduled.

It is not to be overlooked: Particularly in the Social Democrats, something is happening in terms of red-red-green. Just after the meeting, Gabriel sat down in a smaller circle with some members of parliament from the SPD, the Greens and the Left, who have been considering the prospects of such a constellation for years. In the "Paris-Moscow" restaurant, just a kilometer and a half away from the Bundestag chamber, the discussion was also about common ground – and divisive issues. The "good exchange" that the SPD’s Sonke Rix was later pleased about on Twitter is also a hint at the fence post. All those involved belong to a circle around the "think tank," an SPD think tank in which younger and left-wing members of parliament have organized themselves. They have been discussing strategies and content for a red-red-green coalition for years.

All very friendly

In general, the SPD’s communication regarding the left-wing alliance has been surprisingly friendly for months. Gabriel himself advertised in Der Spiegel in June: "Germany now needs an alliance of all progressive forces." Faction leader Thomas Oppermann, who belongs to the right wing of the SPD, conspicuously often includes the sentence in interviews that the time has come to discuss the preconditions for a red-red-green coalition at the federal level. And Secretary General Katarina Barley always finds a kind word for the Left Party. Formats like the meeting of deputies only fit into the picture.

Angela Marquardt, executive director of the SPD think tank, drew this conclusion on Wednesday: "The discussion about red-red-green has arrived in the middle of the SPD." The basis of the exchange is broadening, she said, which pleases her. Behind the SPD’s newly awakened sympathy for a left-wing alliance is also the SPD leadership’s concern about the AfD’s successes. Analyses of the past state elections clearly show that many former SPD voters are defecting to the right-wing populists. Gabriel and Co. hope that a more edgy profile could counteract this.

There is also the exasperation with the grand coalition. "Our people are tired," said a well-connected SPD member of parliament. "They are longing for something new." In the constituency, he said, the deputies get beaten around the ears by their neighbors about everything that’s going wrong – and then in Berlin Oppermann demands discipline. "This balancing act wears people out."

Perhaps all this is not bad news for the red-red-green fans in the parties. For years, they have campaigned enthusiastically but unsuccessfully for this option. The general disillusionment could be just the impetus this alliance needs.