I can’t really agree with Chancellor Merkel when she announced on Friday that “We’re dealing with a coalition partner that’s becoming increasingly unreliable.” Her Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners are no more unreliable now than they have been in the past, and that’s the real problem. But Merkel knows this better than anyone, she only wanted to be the first to personally fire off the campaign season one year before Germany’s general election next September, and to announce what will most likely be the beginning of the end of Germany’s so-called grand coalition.

Of course she also wanted to take the SPD’s thunder in the process, guessing right that they would announce their Chancellor candidate this weekend, which they just did. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will be their man, his popularity in the polls far outdoing the ratings given the luckless leader of the SPD, Kurt Beck. Unlike the American system of popular consensus-finding caucuses and primaries, political parties decide for themselves, behind closed doors so-to-speak, just who the front man will be, and the bottle just spun to Schroeder man Steinmeier.

But not even the German Left can turn backs the hands of time. With the SPD in the shambles it is in these days – it has never been this divided, directionless and weak, a substantial number of their left-wing members having jumped ship for the retro-communist pied pipers of the Left Party – no one here really believes that Steinmeier or anyone else at the good-old-SPD-boy level has a realistic chance of turning their party around in time.

Merkel’s CDU has continually banged heads with its odd couple partner time and time again these past years, most recently over plans to lower taxes, rethink Germany’s policy to scrap nuclear energy completely and the introduction of a minimum wage. She and her party hope to build a coalition with the liberal (as in business-friendly liberal) Free Democrats (FDP), although this can only work if the relatively small FDP can bring in enough votes this time around.

But whatever the results of the election will be for the FDP, one thing seems certain. The free fall of the SPD shows no sign of slowing down, its membership having dropped by the hundreds of thousands and placing it for the first time behind the CDU as Germany’s largest Volkspartei. Whether Steinmeier manages to pull the rip cord in time or not, it’s going to be one ugly landing.

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