21 November 2017

Can Merkel cling on to power?

By Leopold Traugott

The “Jamaica coalition” between Germany’s conservatives, Free Democrats (FDPs) and Greens was never ideal. Right from the start everyone knew it would be difficult to bring together parties that had so little in common – still, faute de mieux, it was hoped they could make it work.

This hope was destroyed as the Free Democrats’ (FDP) abandoned coalition talks at the weekend. This leaves the acting Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a difficult position. She can either try lure the Social Democrats back into government (near impossible), form a minority government (unstable), or call new elections (unlikely to solve the issue).

This is a further blow for Merkel, who has been under increasing criticism over the last couple of months. Nevertheless, gloomy predictions about her immediate exit are exaggerated – not only is she still popular with the general public, the absence of a clear successor makes it unlikely the party would have a new leadership team ready in time for new elections.

In a straw poll conducted yesterday, 85 per cent of CDU supporters said if new elections were held, they would want Merkel to run again. In comparison, Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), only has the backing of 53 per cent of his party’s supporters. And in an interview last night, Merkel announced her willingness to comply with these wishes and govern for another full four years. She will stay on as party leader, at least for the near future.

But there may well have to be new elections. Merkel effectively ruled out the minority government option when she said, yesterday, that it would not provide the stability the country needed. Controlling only one third of the seats in parliament, the CDU and CSU would be under continuous pressure to fashion a majority and thefore subject to the whim of the other parties. For a Chancellor who has ruled Germany in “presidential style” for more than a decade now, this would be something of a change – and a tough challenge to boot.

Meanwhile, the option of a new Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats has fallen flat. The SPD – the only other party that could help the CDU form a majority government – reiterated its opposition to a coalition with the conservatives. They had already made it clear that they would prefer to see new elections were “Jamaica” to fail. The German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and leading politicians within the CDU and even the SPD itself, have put pressure on the Social Democrats to reconsider its position, yet without much success.

Recent polls, however, show that new elections are unlikely to solve anything. No party is predicted to gain or lose more than two per cent compared with the September elections, leaving them in roughly the same constellation – and hence with the same coalition options – as now.

Of course, things can change in the time – three or so months – that it will take to organise new elections. If the conservatives and/or their respective allies experience a surge in popularity, a centre-right coalition with the FDP (currently lacking 29 seats for a majority) or a centre-left coalition with the Green Party (lacking 42) may become possible. Should this fail, however, Germany will have just kicked the can down the road for a couple of months.

Many fear that a new election would also risk strengthening Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The failure of centrist parties to find consensus could drive voters into the arms of the right-wing AfD, which warmly welcoms the prospect of new elections. It’s difficult to predict whether they would profit, though: following the shock over AfD’s strong showing in September, new elections could lead to a boost in voter turnout among the Left and centre. They also may see AfD voters being snatched away by the Free Democrats.

But until a new government is formed, Germany will be paralysed and navel-gazing. Without a new democratically legitimised government, Berlin cannot commit the country to any wide-reaching political projects on the European or international level.

This will be felt most painfully in Paris, where President Emmanuel Macron has kept a close eye on German coalition talks, hoping that a strong and stable partner will emerge. Without German support, French proposals for eurozone reform will not take off. Germany’s weakness could lead to France and Italy becoming more active players themselves, but it would still slow down reform.

The schadenfreude with which many Brexiteers are watching the German chaos is largely misplaced. Without a strong government – indeed, without a government at all – Berlin is even less likely to move behind the scenes and help broker compromises in Brexit negotiations. As the parties traditionally representing German industry (CDU, CSU and FDP) are fighting about power and political survival at home, Brexit will fall behind even further in their list of priorities.

Leopold Traugott is a Policy Analyst at Open Europe