Politics & Policy

Merkel Marooned

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in Berlin, November 20, 2017. (Axel Schmidt/Reuters)

When Christian Lindner, leader of Germany’s market-minded Free Democrat party, walked out of the three-party negotiations intended to forge a new federal government from the fragmented political spectrum that emerged from the recent elections, he signaled the end of Germany’s post-war political settlement — one of almost astounding stability. As Josef Joffe has pointed out in Politico, for most of the last seven decades, almost all German governments were different combinations of three political parties: the center-right Christian Democrats, joined by their conservative Bavarian regional allies, the Christian Social Union, at a national level (thus the CDU-CSU); the center-left Social Democrats (SDP); and the aforementioned Free Democrats (FDP). On rare occasions the CDU-CSU alliance would join the SPD in a “grand coalition,” but most of the time the FDP would decide which of the two main parties would be its larger partner in a coalition. By and large this system gave Germany stable, moderate, sensible government that shifted slightly left or right as elections and the FDP dictated. It suited both Germany’s cautious post-war electorate and the country’s allies very well.

But things started to change after the Cold War and German reunification. First the Greens moved their politics away from Peace Movement leftism to a more centrist progressivism stressing environmentalism and open borders. Next some voters in the former East Germany, nostalgic for the meager but comforting security of Communism, helped to midwife the birth of a welfarist party to the left of the SDP, namely the Linke. And, finally, Chancellor Merkel’s “welcome politics” offering sanctuary to Middle Eastern refugees without limit provoked the rise of a “populist” party, Alternative for Germany, which joined Euro-skepticism to anti-immigration politics. In the last election these new parties achieved a surprise result: a completely fragmented political spectrum of six parties of which two — the Linke and the AFD — are treated by the other four as only dubiously democratic and therefore unacceptable as coalition partners. When the SPD decided not to enter a new coalition, the parliamentary arithmetic thus required a “Jamaica coalition” of the CDU-CSU, the Greens, and the FDP.

Lindner’s walk-out made that impossible.

It’s hard to quarrel with his decision. A Jamaica government — so-called because of the colors of each party’s symbols — was a coalition of incompatibles. Its equivalent in the animal world would be the pushmi-pullyu, a version of the mythical llama with heads at both ends, from the Doctor Doolittle stories. The Greens want greater openness to immigration and more reliance on “renewables” in Germany’s already expensive energy policy; the Free Democrats want lower taxes, especially on business, fewer migrants, and protection of the German taxpayer from further payments to Europe’s South to keep the euro afloat. Lindner walked out because he could see that the FDP in a Jamaica coalition would be the party making the concessions.

Free Democrats had done exactly that in Merkel’s earlier CDU-CSU-FDP government and as a result had fallen below the 5 percent “hurdle” a party needs to leap over in order to enter the Bundestag. They felt wounded by this previous experience and suspicious of Merkel whose usual political strategy is to lean left (at their expense). And though one should never say never in politics, still it will be hard to persuade them to change their minds. That’s also true for the SDP, who were so shocked by their loss in the recent election that they decided to retreat into opposition and renew their ideology in the dim light of a vote share of only 20 percent. If neither a Jamaica nor a grand coalition is on the cards, then what?

If no other coalition can be cobbled together, the choice is between a minority government and a new election. Merkel doesn’t want a minority government (of which she would be the head) because she would have to make more concessions to other parties to win key votes than if they were her coalition partners. She would then be far weaker as chancellor than she already is as a less-than-successful candidate. She may, however, be forced to accept that outcome. Germany’s president, the SDP’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, wants to avoid another election (probably for respectable reasons of political stability) and so favors either a new coalition or a minority government. But his hands are tied by a constitution that requires a new election if three attempts to form a government fail. Most of those in the German establishment and punditocracy want a new coalition because they think that even a Jamaica coalition would continue with most of the policies they consider important on Europe, migration, energy, the environment, etc. They also fear that an election would return all six parties in much the same proportions as now — as polls suggest — and that would mean an acceptance that “populism” is now a permanent part of the German system as of the systems of other European countries. And they don’t want that above all else.

Merkel’s prestige, towering only yesterday, is now falling.

Lindner and his party are now the main obstacles to a partial restoration of an unsatisfactory status quo. Opinion polls suggest that they are now being blamed for the “crisis.” But the polls also suggest that the blame has reduced their support only marginally. Unless Markel and the Greens agree to adopt more FDP policies than they have done so far, moreover, the Free Democrats have nothing much to lose from risking another election — and perhaps something to gain. Merkel’s prestige, towering only yesterday, is now falling. As the immediate loyalist reaction of supporting her leadership dissipates, as it is likely to do, she will become still weaker. Her conservative allies in Bavaria’s CSU (and in her own party) already blame her for their loss of support over migration. No other political leader now dominates the German scene — not the SPD’s Martin Schulz, neither the Greens’ nor the Linke’s leaders, and certainly not the AFD at any level. By putting a halt to a prolonged chaotic process of negotiations that seemed to be going nowhere, by doing so with the attractively mature argument that not being in government at all was better than being in a bad government, and by appearing as the one positive protagonist in a cast of squabbling antagonists, the FDP’s Lindner may be laying the groundwork for a serious improvement in his party’s prospects when Merkel finally goes.

That may not be tomorrow, but it is unlikely to be as long as four years away.


Angela Merkel and Germany’s Moment

Germany Voters Shake Up the Elites

Merkel’s Generous Refugee Policy Puts Germany at Risk


The Latest