The collapse in negotiations aiming to form a coalition government in the Bundestag has brought speculation upon the fate of Germany and the Eurozone at large. German voters, once a beacon for political stability for many years as populism tore through western politics, have been frozen by the recent uncertainty of their own political future. Our analysis aims to reveal whether this is a refreshing correction to the status quo from a system that has seen decades of deadlock; or whether the upheaval forewarns of crisis in the European bolt hold. A solid Franco-Germanic core will hold the EU together. The absence of the UK will enable much needed reforms to take place as integration, expansion, terrorism and the refugee crisis feed the tide of populism.
A brief background
Angela Merkel has served three four-year terms as chancellor of Germany since 2005. This year her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has once again achieved the majority share of votes (33%) and, as such, Merkel finds herself in the Chancellor’s seat once more. Nevertheless, due to Germany’s political foundations, unless the CDU has an absolute majority that exceeds half of the national vote share, the party will need to form a coalition with another party to form a government. This process, which has been occurring for the past three months, sees different parties attempt to compromise on their political agendas in order to get into power. This process has been particularly tricky this year due to the rise of the nationalist right-wing party Alternative For Germany (AFD).
The AFD won 12.6 per cent of the vote , earning them the title of the third biggest party in parliament. The AFD inclinations are toward the more extreme right-wing. They have been in the news for calling for the shooting of refugees at the border, and for calling the holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame”. As a result of such outspoken and resentful nationalism, mainstream parties excluded the possibility of going into a coalition with the AFD before the elections for fear of irreparable reputational damages.
In the last iteration of national elections, the CDU were able to form a government with the second largest party in Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD). But, after the SPD’s devastating loss in votes due to their coalition with a party whose agenda veers away from their socialist manifesto, the SPD found themselves unwilling to reform the “Great Coalition” that the CDU and SPD has formed in previous years. This wouldn’t be the first time within the Bundestag. Angela Merkel is often mocked by those who say she governs parties into the abyss. Because her party has held the majority in the coalitions, they have been able to draw concessions from their partners into deals that contradict their founding principles. Partnering parties find themselves alienating their core voters and can often end up worse once out of government than before they were in power. Such was the case with the SPD - losing their core socialist voters due to the party’s alignment with a right-wing CDU. Some may say this was an inevitable consequence of aligning with a centre-right party.
Partnering parties find themselves alienating their core voters and can often end up worse once out of government than before they were in power.
This phenomenon is widespread in German politics. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) neoliberals entered a coalition with Merkel in her second term. They were completely ruined electorally from their coalition with the CDU that they didn’t even make it in to parliament in the term that followed their governance. For Merkel, a coalition offers a scapegoat for the problems facing her leadership. Furthermore, all parties exclude the possibility of governing together with the left-most party due to a similar negative association effect. This puts the left-most party in a similar position to the AFD - a rather unambiguous nod to the exclusion of parties deemed ‘extreme’ from parliamentary prominence.
This leaves the only possibility for a majority government in the “Jamaica Coalition” – because the parties’ colour scheme - between the conservative CDU; her right-wing sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU); the neoliberal FDP; the former socialist SPD and the Green Party. All parties have inherently different agendas, resulting in protracted coalition talks and finally in the failure of the “Jamaica Coalition” with the FDP opting out.
A chance for change
The political uncertainty that has followed the national elections is a new state of affairs for Germany. Since the second world war, prospective coalition partners have always managed to form a consensus among their policy alignment. In the case where no coalition can be formed, German law states two possibilities: one, a minority government is formed, or the nation undergoes a second wave of elections. While one occasion in 1972 saw a re-election begin after a “constructive” vote of no confidence in the incumbent, Germany has never held a second election after failed coalition talks. Further, the ‘stability-loving’ elite would much prefer to avoid a minority government on the national level where at all possible.
Pressure mounts on the German president - a figure that performs mostly administrative and representative tasks, but whom becomes an important and pivotal tool in the event of an “crisis” such as this. Frank Walter Steinmeier (SPD), the current president, has suddenly been flung into focus. The first path he and Merkel will attempt to pursue is to pressure the SPD into another “grand coalition” that is comprised of the two largest parties in Germany. Repetitively mentioning the “responsibility” of forming a government, Steinmeier and Merkel have both attempted to urge the SPD to remove the deadlock they placed on the possibility of another coalition.
If the CDU and Merkel do not establish a functioning coalition, Steinmeier can call for a vote in parliament for a new Chancellor to be elected. While it is likely Merkel would secure enough votes to remain Chancellor, she would then be facing one of two possibilities. Firstly, the CDU could form a minority government with a smaller party. This would mean for every new vote on any topic, the CDU must find supporters among the opposition to prop up their legislative agenda. A perverse game of political postulating would likely ensue as the greater bargaining power of the opposition meets the compromising and calculating ruling parties. Merkel is opposed to this alternative because of the “political uncertainty” that would ensue with ever-changing voting blocs. If Merkel and the CDU refuse to take this measure, then Steinmeier can move to motion new elections; although the national parties would have to react quickly to the prospect of a snap election. Neither scenario play out particularly well when attempting to hold up Germany’s image as politically stable nation.
A deeply rooted problem
It remains unclear what this instability means for Merkel, her party, or the wider political landscape. While some say this was Merkel’s own fault and her decision to open the borders to refugees in 2015 is finally catching up on her, others say this situation will only make her stronger as she knows how to manage internal conflict and rally support around her.
The more interesting aspect, however, is how Germany came to be in this situation. Merkel has indeed steered Germany through many crises in her tenure, keeping the nation afloat. She has presided over economic stability and burgeoning wealth; presenting Germany as an exemplary model of exporting and innovative success to the outside world. Yet, even Merkel has trouble masking the ongoing domestic struggles that the country faces. Germany has an ageing population that is steadily resulting in unequal and altered demographics, with politicians sclerotic in reacting to their changing electoral base. Retirement payments have been constantly shrinking and Germany faces the crisis of finding adequate carers. Gaps in the labour market are systemic problems caused by a low minimum wage, keeping those on such a salary barely above subsistence level. Germany’s political elite are in bed with the automobile lobbyists and are continually overturn environmental standards for the benefit of big manufacturers. Even the refugee crisis has failed to prevent politicians blaming refugees and asylum seekers for such domestic problems. The truth of the matter is that current German parties have no real identity.
Although marginally distinct on paper, the two biggest parties, the CDU and SPD, are now so close in their political standing that it is hard to define what they truly advocate for. The CDU, once the most conservative party, priding itself on being the answer to the right-wing, now has a chancellor keeping borders open for refugees against her party’s will. The rise of the nationalist party (AFD) is just another symptom of this problem. The haphazard response of German parties trying to align themselves further right on the political scale attests to their inability to solidify their political standing. Instead of listening to the concerns of the people who voted for a protest party like the AFD, German politicians keep pointing fingers. The SPD was, in its early years after the second world war, a proud advocate for workers’ rights. The party did not react strongly to the CDU’s lowering of the rent and subsistence wage, and fully avoided responding to the shrinking of the care sector.
Although marginally distinct on paper, the two biggest parties, the CDU and SPD, are now so close in their political standing that it is hard to define what they truly advocate for.
German parties have little backbone in the 21st century - there is no real political discourse and the German populace are oblivious to what is happening. Furthermore, a party like “The Left” is constantly being marginalized as being too extreme, simply because they fervently try to pursue their goals and are not willing to compromise at all costs in the way other parties have done.
Finding the positive in instability
While the usually lackadaisical population - so accustomed to the establishment - is now panicking, this writer believes this situation is inspiring. Something is finally happening. After years and years of stability and maintaining the status quo, this “crisis” gives us the opportunity to overthrow the old elite and make a change.
A minority government or secondary election will force the political parties to redefine themselves. This is the first step toward disentangling the establishment and the career politicians that have been dominating their own parties for years without leaving scope for change. They will instead be forced to concede to new ideals and an altered political landscape. The ageing politicians, illiterate in face of disruptive technologies and the advent of the Internet of Things and Big Data, are becoming obsolete in a world rapidly changing under fingers, clueless to a fault.
While the SPD has recently opened themselves to talks with the CDU about another “Great Coalition”, in my opinion, they should stand by their statement after the elections, excluding the possibility of another flawed coalition with the CDU. Germany has a stagnation problem after years and years of consensus politics. We have killed the political discourse and the debate; we have killed the way politics should be conducted. By cutting corners, engaging in postulation, concessions and making secret deals behind closed doors and unanimously agreeing on measures, we lose the benefits of disagreeing. We lose having different opinions and working together to find common ground to make equitable change. For this to happen, however, the parties need to have different opinions, they must have different political profiles. Why would a nation continue to progress with proportional representation if we do not actually use it for its intended purpose? TMM
Edited 21-01-2018 23:12 GMT for Features. This article originally appeared in our Columns section.