Heiko Maas Germany's likely new foreign minister

After struggling to agree on a new coalition government, the Social Democrats are now laboring over top ministerial posts, especially the foreign ministry. Its current head isn't making the decision easy.
A cantankerous Mr. Gabriel (l), a confident Mr. Maas and an amused Ms. Barley.

Put this puzzle together: nominating six federal cabinet positions, split between three women and three men with a mixture of familiar and new faces from north, south, east and west. That's the task of the Social Democratic Party leadership after the rank and file on Sunday agreed to form a new government with Angela Merkel's conservatives. One clue: Olaf Scholz, the mayor of the northern city of Hamburg, currently serving as the interim SPD party boss, is the only certain pick so far – as finance minister. Now guess the rest.

In addition to finance, the Social Democrats have to appoint heads to the foreign, labor, justice, family and environment ministries. The party leadership plans to announce these appointments by the end of the week, possibly sooner. While the finance portfolio is arguably the most powerful of the six cabinet positions, the foreign ministry isn’t far behind. It, too, is seen as a post where the officeholder enjoys high visibility.

Acting foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, 58, knows that better than anyone in the party. He saw his sagging popularity soar after handing over stewardship of the SPD and the economics ministry to become foreign minster. No wonder he wants to hang on to the job. But his chances are poor, despite the international attention he recently garnered from his involvement in the release of Deniz Yücel; the German-Turkish journalist had been detained in Turkey over a year without any charges brought against him.

Mr. Gabriel has burned too many bridges in the party with his ego, spontaneity and temper, party insiders say. Friends are now few and far between — Andrea Nahles, the designated party chairwomen and parliamentarian group head, and acting SPD head Mr. Scholz, are not among them. And they have a lot to say in who gets what ministerial job.

Another potential foreign minister, Katrina Barley, referred to herself as the party’s “universal weapon.”

Another name making the rounds is Katrina Barley, 49, acting family minister who is also temporarily filling in as labor minister for Ms. Nahles. At the SPD’s annual Ash Wednesday political roasting last month, the daughter of a British journalist and German doctor surprised everyone when she said she could imagine becoming foreign minister, referring to herself as the party’s “universal weapon.” If picked, she would be the first-ever woman in that job.

Most likely, though, Ms. Barley, a trained lawyer with a PhD, will be given the justice ministry and its head, Heiko Maas, will move over to the foreign ministry. He is seen by many within the SPD as someone with the profile, temperament and speaking skills to master the job. The minister has made a name for himself by demanding a substantive debate with the populist Alternative for Germany party on the far right, whose manifesto he has criticized as a road map to a "Germany of yesterday." The justice minister has also been an outspoken critic of Facebook, Twitter and other internet platforms, which he accuses of disseminating hate speech.

Germany has waited nearly six months for a new government and after Angela Merkel announced her Christian Democratic ministers last month, it's the SPD's turn. Let's see if the party can deliver a surprise or two. It has a long, 155-year tradition of doing so.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]