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June 28, 2017

Is gay marriage Merkel’s next refugee problem?

We wrote yesterday that Angela Merkel’s U-turn on gay marriage was significant, and yesterday it backfired, seemingly to her own surprise. By accepting the principle of a free vote on gay marriage, Merkel wanted to signal openness on the one issue where the CDU/CSU officially disagrees with every other party it might enter into a coalition with after the elections. Merkel wanted to prep the CDU for such a coalition. 

What Merkel didn’t foresee was that the SPD would say thank you, and table the legislation at the committee stage, where SPD, the Left Party and the Greens, have a majority. The final plenary vote is scheduled for Friday. There are currently three legislative proposals but they all agree to abolish clause 1353 of the German civil code, which explicitly prohibits gay marriage. The CDU grassroots are outraged, both at Merkel’s on-the-hoof style of politics, and at the SPD’s exploitation of it. It was part of the coalition agreement that this issue would not be touched, and the SPD had reluctantly accepted it - until now. Some conservative CDU members are talking about a breach of the coalition, but this is nonsense of course since Merkel herself triggered this entire development.

The newspapers noted, that once again, Merkel takes her big decisions all on her own, in this case in a talkshow. They compared this to her decision to open the borders to refugees two years ago. 

Commentators see this episode as a potential break for Martin Schulz. The SPD’s party congress on the weekend seemed to have stopped the fall in their poll ratings. Gerhard Schröder gave a rabble-rousing speech, so did Schulz. 

Yesterday, the party’s executive met. Sigmar Gabriel was in good form when he read a letter he had written to Merkel in 2015, advocating the principle of gay marriage. The clumsy way Merkel talked about the issue, in a talk show, also suggests that this was not really somethig she personally had strong feelings about. It was a tactical manoeuvre. Her overall tactics in this election seems to be to preempt any popular initiative by another party, by coming out in favour of that party’s programme points herself. The problem is that this now looks somewhat unprincipled and, since everybody knows this and talks about it, it may not work as well as intended. We also noted yesterday that German stand-up comedians are having a field day with this.

So is this a turning point for Schulz and the SPD? We would not predict that Schulz will get back to the dizzy levels at which he peaked in the polls - around 33%. But there is quite a bit of upward potential from the depth to which he sank. Any result above Peer Steinbruck’s 25% last time will be welcomed as a victory. So will any result that precludes a CDU/CSU/FDP coalition, which we think would be a disaster for the eurozone in particular. We think that Schulz may be able to clinch that. We think that a red-red-green majority is still possible, though unlikely. Even when the SPD peaked at over 30%, the three parties did not have a majority in most of the polls. 

This episode also shows Merkel at her weakest, an ill-thought-out tactical manoeuvre whose political impact she underestimates, and for which she has not secured enough backing within her own party. Differential turnout was the big factor playing in favour of Brexit in 2016, in favour of Labour in 2017, and also in favour of Merkel herself in the 2013 German elections. It could play a role in the opposite direction this time. Judging from the mood at last Sunday's SPD party congress, it appears that the SPD may at least manage to motivate its own supporters this time, while Merkel’s U-turn may induce some of her conservative voters to stay at home. 

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