It was an interesting and promising experiment: In December 2013 the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) asked its members to vote on the question of a possible grand coalition with the German Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel. And within as well as outside of the party many observers had been questioning if this procedure was such a good idea. A broad and fundamental discussion arose about the planned party ballot and whether the mere 475.000 members of one political party should, in the end, be able to decide if a planned national government could materialize. And don’t forget about the question of wether the usual procedures of a parliamentary democracy can easily be extended with more direct and participatory forms of decision-making. A big part of the guessing game on a possible outcome of the membership vote was due to the fact that any survey could only focus on people sympathizing with the SPD but not directly on the members themselves. Only the party leadership holds the address list of party members and running a poll over the whole population just to filter the voting SPD members out would have been far too costly. The result was that until the party ballot was held nobody really had an idea what the outcome would be and therefore about the consequences for the SPD, any new government run by Angela Merkel, and for German democracy in general.
Party conferences in the days and weeks prior to the vote received intense media coverage and therefore led to an impression of a truly pessimistic social democratic mood. A great part of the people speaking up at these party meetings or regional conferences were understandably those driven by a feeling of critique towards the party leaders and their proposition of a coalition with the German conservatives. But this led to an exaggeration of possible no-votes before the ballot.
In the end the party vote showed a clear approval of the proposed coalition project: Almost 370.000 of the currently 475.000 social democratic members participated in the ballot. This meant 78% of all members instead of the required minimum turnout of 20%. 75,96% had voted in favour of a grand coalition whereas 23,95% had voted against it. But the detailed reasons for the membership decision still remained unclear. Nevertheless the party ballot has had a motivating effect on the membership itself and furthermore on the other German political parties. Who wants to fall behind this new elevated bar of inner-party participation if the social democratic experience was entirely positive?