(Bloomberg) — The last barrier to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fourth term is an activist named Kevin who was born the same year the Berlin Wall fell.
The 28-year-old head of the Social Democrats’ youth organization, Kevin Kuehnert has become the youthful face of widespread party frustration, arguing that a role in the opposition is better than yet another alliance with the so-called Queen of Europe. Battling Merkel and his own party’s leadership, he’s become a ubiquitous presence in Germany, appearing on talk shows, giving newspaper and television interviews and debating at SPD events.
“The SPD is a proud, old party and doesn’t have to orient itself based on what Mrs. Merkel wants,” Kuehnert said in an interview with public broadcaster ARD on Sunday after a rally near Frankfurt. “We’re not in a monarchy.”
Kuehnert’s direct rhetoric and boy-next-door appearance stand to make for a tight race as SPD’s 463,000 members start voting Tuesday on accepting or rejecting the coalition agreement with Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led bloc. The results of the ballot, which will be conducted by mail, will be unveiled on March 4.
“The biggest risk to the membership vote is posed by the left-leaning members who for ideological reasons oppose a grand coalition,” Manfred Guellner, head of polling group Forsa. “It’s difficult to predict the outcome.”
Ballots will be sent nationwide this week. Inside are two envelopes: a smaller one for the voting slip and the second for a signed declaration to ensure validity.
Tensions within the SPD surged in the months after a historic defeat in national elections in September, with the membership split over whether to rebuild in opposition or to push for Social Democratic policies from inside the government. That dilemma has become existential as support further declined from a postwar election low. One poll on Monday showed the SPD below the far-right Alternative for Germany for the first time.
Now, it’s up to the SPD members to decide on a coalition agreement that stabilizes Germany, but risks further diluting the party’s profile by serving as Merkel’s junior partner for the third time.
Andrea Nahles, the SPD’s designated chairwoman, who along with other party leaders is crisscrossing Germany to lobby in favor of a return to government, is optimistic about the vote because of gains made for workers and retirees in the coalition agreement. Even so, the party still needs to reinvent itself to win back voters, she said before a rally in Mainz. A poll from Friday showed 66 percent of members backing a so-called grand coalition of Germany’s two biggest parties.
“It’s very difficult because there’s good arguments on both sides,” said Joerg Lorenz, managing director of the party’s operations in Duisburg, a traditional SPD stronghold in Germany’s Rust Belt, adding that the level of tension is like nothing he’s seen in over 30 years of service.
Merkel’s response to the challenge from Kuehnert and others critics has been a return to the world stage, meeting with a series of dignitaries in recent days including British Prime Minister Theresa May as well as the heads of the Netherlands, Poland, Luxembourg and the World Bank.
Despite criticism over handing the SPD the powerful finance ministry in the coalition accord, Merkel is reasserting control over her political base, appointing close ally and potential successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as CDU general secretary.
Kuehnert shrugs off the risks of SPD’s fall from grace, saying the best way to reverse the decline is by coming up with clear political positions in opposition or as an occasional collaborator with a CDU minority government.
“The SPD has nothing to fear by rejecting this coalition agreement,” Kuehnert, dressed in a black t-shirt, told ARD. “Now is the hour of the SPD members.”