To the surprise of many, the slow and steady negotiations for a new German government led by Angela Merkel fell apart disastrously this week. Will it mean the end for Europe’s longest-serving democratically-elected leader?
After the federal elections in September, Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) refused a role in yet another ‘Great Coalition’ with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU). After that, it seemed like only a matter of time before Angela Merkel would create a new stable governing coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP)—the so-called ‘Jamaica Coalition’.
When the Free Democrats walked away from the negotiating table earlier this week, however, Germany was startled to find itself at a political impasse. This has left many, not least the Germans themselves, scratching their heads and asking what are the ways that this could play out?
1. New elections
If Angela Merkel, as the head of the acting government, declares herself unable to form a ruling coalition, new elections might be called. On Tuesday, a snap poll by public broadcaster ZDF’s Politbarometer indicated that 51 per cent would welcome new elections, with 43 per cent opposed to the idea.
A complicating factor here is that Merkel cannot simply dissolve the Bundestag. That role falls to the President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Having only just returned to Germany from a trip to Australia, Steinmeier has indicated that he is opposed to the idea and would prefer that the parties return to negotiations. As he has repeatedly said, parties that campaigned to be given political responsibility should not refuse it when it is offered. Steinmeier is acutely aware that allowing new elections in the vague hope of bolstering the electoral mandate of political parties is a short path to a cycle of instability and electoral churn.
A further complication is that new elections would likely boost the far-right Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), which would make hay with its ‘the system is broken’ populist rhetoric. In the aftermath of the FDP walk out, the AfD’s Beatrix von Storch tweeted: “Merkel has failed! A success for the AfD!” AfD spokesperson Jörg Meuthen has also argued that any new elections stemming from the failure of Merkel’s brand of politics would only strengthen the AfD.
One inventive but risky way to stymie the AfD via new elections could be by replacing Merkel. A resignation or CDU party-room coup might lure dissatisfied anti-Merkel conservatives who voted AfD back to the CDU/CSU fold, paving the way for a new CDU-led centre-right government. Then again, it could alienate as many CDU voters as it attracted.
For her part, Merkel has repeated her promise to stay for four years. And, if reports from within the CDU are to be trusted, Merkel has no need to fear regicide.
2. A return to ‘Great Coalition’ talks
Polls suggest that only 48 per cent of voters would welcome a return to a ‘GroKo’, with 46 per cent against it. To many commentators, however, this looks like the most likely outcome. But it would almost certainly come at the cost of jettisoning Martin Schulz as SPD leader. Since the FDP walk-out, Schulz has doubled down on his assertion that under his leadership the SPD would not join Merkel’s CDU in government as a junior partner. In this he’s been supported by others on the left of the party who argue that Austrian-style centrist coalitions artificially enlarge the appeal of far-right and far-left parties, the only remaining alternatives to the status quo.
Refusing junior partner status makes sense from the SPD’s perspective. The party has seen a steady decrease in their vote during their time as coalition partners and if they are to be a viable party in the future, they need a term in opposition to redefine who they are. It is also good for German democracy to have clear lines of demarcation between the two major parties. There are real policy differences on tax, welfare and health policy just to name a few.
But in the short term Schulz must weather the storm of comments from outsiders and from SPD figures on the right of the party, such as Johannes Kahrs and Bernd Westphal, who are demanding that Schulz and the SPD leadership reconsider their refusal to govern. It will be interesting to see whether President Steinmeier—an ex-SPD heavyweight and Great Coalition minister—can convince Schulz to pull Merkel’s chestnuts out of the fire.
3. FDP returns to the negotiating table
In the most choreographed ‘spontaneous’ walk out in recent political memory, FDP leader Christian Lindner declared that it was better not to govern than to govern poorly; a good line that was tainted slightly when it came to light that it had been written well in advance of the seemingly abrupt walkout. The FDP claimed that there were more than 230 points of disagreement between the parties when they walked away from the table. The CDU, on the other hand, argued that one more round of negotiations probably would have seen an agreement.
At present, the FDP is carrying the blame for the entire crisis in the press, but the party believes it is acting in a way that will preserve its volatile voter base on an already crowded German right wing. With the FDP having once fallen below the 5 per cent hurdle to Bundestag representation, Lindner is hoping that his rejectionist stance will be seen as a sign of strength rather than weakness. A return to negotiations by the FDP is very unlikely.
4. Minority government by Merkel
This option has polled disastrously: 30 per cent for, 64 per cent against. Merkel has publicly argued that she is not interested in having to build a coalition for every single vote in the Bundestag. She has also indicated that she would much prefer new elections to minority government. On this point she has been supported by the CDU’s Finance Minister Peter Altmaier who has argued that a minority government, unloved by all parties, would be no solution. Even the AfD’s Meuthen agrees that a minority government would result in political turmoil for the foreseeable future.
Interestingly, however, this may be what President Steinmeier proposes to SPD leader Schulz: a minority CDU government ‘tolerated’ but not formally joined by the SPD. That Schulz or Merkel would agree to such an arrangement—neither fish nor fowl—seems doubtful.
Other courses of action might present themselves in the coming days; optimists may see grounds for hope that a solution might not be too far away. Then again, it took the Dutch almost 220 days to form their last government, and some of Germany’s problems look similarly intractable. Whether President Steinmeier can convince party leaders to make good on their claims to be ready for government remains to be seen.
Dr Matt Fitzpatrick is associate professor in international history at Flinders University.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.