In­ter­na­tional Ger­many's dan­ger­ous po­lit­i­cal mar­riage

Ger­many's new grand coali­tion – the third in Merkel's long chan­cel­lor­ship – is a good out­come for Ger­many's short-term sta­bil­ity, es­pe­cially with re­gard to Europe. But it is a bad out­come for democ­racy, es­pe­cially at a time when pop­ulist forces are a grow

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents -

More than five months af­ter Ger­many’s fed­eral elec­tion last Septem­ber, a new grand coali­tion gov­ern­ment – com­pris­ing Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union, the CDU’s Bavar­ian sis­ter party, the Chris­tian So­cial Union (CSU), and the So­cial Demo­cratic Party (SPD) – has fi­nally been formed. But there is lit­tle rea­son to cel­e­brate.

Ger­many has en­dured nearly six of months un­der a care­taker gov­ern­ment (the long­est in the Fed­eral Repub­lic’s his­tory), a failed coali­tion agree­ment, weeks of ar­du­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions, painful in­ter­nal party rum­blings, and much pol­i­tick­ing. More­over, a re­cent na­tional poll dealt yet an­other blow to the cen­tre-left SPD, in­di­cat­ing that if elec­tions were held to­day, the party would be out­per­formed by the far­right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD).

Add to that Europe’s on­go­ing right-wing back­lash (ex­em­pli­fied, most re­cently, by Italy’s elec­tion) and the threat of a trade war with the United States, and Ger­many’s new grand coali­tion reeks of des­per­a­tion. Not sur­pris­ingly, re­ac­tions to its for­ma­tion were sub­dued, with the pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal in­sid­ers alike mostly just re­lieved to have the long or­deal be­hind them.

Ger­many’s new grand coali­tion – the third in Merkel’s long chan­cel­lor­ship – is a mar­riage of con­ve­nience: love­less, largely unloved, and de­void of any over­ar­ch­ing vi­sion. It is a good out­come for Ger­many’s short-term sta­bil­ity, es­pe­cially with re­gard to Europe. But it is an un­cer­tain out­come in the longer term, given the coali­tion’s con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal bag­gage, and it is a bad out­come for democ­racy, es­pe­cially at a time when pop­ulist forces are a grow­ing threat.

One might ar­gue that it is good for democ­racy that Merkel’s coali­tion has shrunk. Be­cause the gov­ern­ment par­ties con­trol barely more than half of the Bun­destag, they no longer over­whelm the op­po­si­tion, ren­der­ing it ir­rel­e­vant. The prob­lem is that the largest of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion party is now the pop­ulist AfD.

More­over, the share of the Bun­destag held by op­po­si­tion par­ties that are only semi-loyal to lib­eral democ­racy – the AfD and its left-wing coun­ter­part Die Linke (the Left) – now ap­proaches one-quar­ter. Not since the Weimar Repub­lic has a far-right party been the largest op­po­si­tion force, or have anti-lib­eral forces con­trolled such a large share of the Bun­destag.

This il­lib­eral re­sult is a di­rect con­se­quence of the SPD’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in Merkel’s gov­ern­ment. Had the SPD re­mained in op­po­si­tion, as it vowed to do af­ter its poor elec­tion re­sult, it could have spent the next four years re­new­ing its plat­form and mem­ber­ship, while act­ing as a strong chal­lenger to both Merkel and the right- and left-wing pop­ulists. A Merkel-led CDU/CSU mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment would have meant open de­bate on all ma­jor pol­icy is­sues and leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als, en­liven­ing the Bun­destag and show­ing the pub­lic that po­lit­i­cal par­ties mat­ter, and that a grand coali­tion isn’t es­sen­tial to progress.

In­stead, Ger­many got a gov­ern­ment that will im­ple­ment a pre­de­ter­mined set of poli­cies, con­tained in a 170-page agree­ment hammered out be­hind closed doors – one that prom­ises more of the same. Its mem­bers will en­gage in all of the same pro­fes­sion­ally chore­ographed and well­re­hearsed de­bates, the rit­u­al­is­tic dis­play of leg­isla­tive process that de­val­ues par­lia­ment be­cause the out­come is pre­de­ter­mined.

For Europe, this means that no sig­nif­i­cant shift in Ger­many’s ap­proach – for bet­ter or for worse – should be ex­pected. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron will not see a Ger­man hand reach­ing out to work with him on Euro­pean Union re­form, though he might be able to grasp a fin­ger or two.

To be sure, the new grand coali­tion’s pol­icy ap­proach will be dif­fer­ent in some respects from the last. In her de­ter­mi­na­tion to form a gov­ern­ment, Merkel yielded to the

SPD on im­por­tant is­sues, in­clud­ing EU pol­icy and labour-mar­ket mat­ters. As a re­sult, the over­all leg­isla­tive pro­gramme out­lined in the coali­tion agree­ment is more so­cial demo­cratic than that of any pre­vi­ous grand coali­tion.

But, ul­ti­mately, Ger­many can ex­pect more of the same for the time be­ing. This will keep the gov­ern­ment sta­ble in the near term. But it is a feast for pop­ulists – and a missed op­por­tu­nity for democ­racy.

In fact, what­ever sta­bil­ity the CDU/CSU and the SPD think that they have se­cured, there are plenty of rea­sons for con­cern in the medium term. The CDU is in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient with Merkel and her pol­icy ap­proach. And, though it is the largest party, it has rel­a­tively fewer gov­ern­ment posts than the SPD, with no CDU cab­i­net min­is­ter hail­ing from eastern Ger­many, an AfD strong­hold.

Un­like the CDU, whose mem­bers will soon feel short-changed, the SPD has re­dis­cov­ered the virtues of in­ter­nal democ­racy, which re­vealed a sig­nif­i­cant dis­con­nect be­tween the party’s lead­er­ship and its base. What­ever suc­cess the SPD has had play­ing the coali­tion game, the party’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in yet an­other Merkel-led gov­ern­ment stands to cost it grow­ing num­bers of lower- and mid­dle-in­come vot­ers.

Both the CDU and the SPD face a shrink­ing elec­toral base and a fall­ing sup­ply of lead­er­ship cadres. As a re­sult, both par­ties and their coali­tion will be­come in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble over time, a trend that would be ac­cel­er­ated by their poor per­for­mance in the 2019 Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tion, not to men­tion in Ger­many’s up­com­ing state and lo­cal elec­tions.

Mean­while, in the ab­sence of a cri­sis that de­mands po­lit­i­cal at­ten­tion, all of the prob­lems and risks that Ger­many’s pre­vi­ous coali­tion gov­ern­ments have failed to ad­dress will con­tinue to be ig­nored. At a time when Ger­man lead­er­ship is so badly needed in Europe, the coun­try is set to con­tinue to play a pas­sive role.

Un­til re­cently, the SPD seemed to pre­fer a loss to a half-vic­tory, much as a per­son might de­cide that it is bet­ter to be alone than in a medi­ocre re­la­tion­ship. But now the SPD seems to think that be­ing in power, by join­ing the rul­ing coali­tion, is au­to­mat­i­cally bet­ter than be­ing in op­po­si­tion, no mat­ter the cost. And the cost could be very high in­deed. Love­less mar­riages can last a long time, but they rarely end well.

Hel­mut K. An­heier is Pres­i­dent and Pro­fes­sor of So­ci­ol­ogy at the Her­tie School of Gov­er­nance in Ber­lin. Copy­right: Project Syn­di­cate

In the ab­sence of a cri­sis that de­mands po­lit­i­cal at­ten­tion, all of the prob­lems and risks that Ger­many’s pre­vi­ous coali­tion gov­ern­ments have failed to ad­dress will con­tinue to be ig­nored.

Hel­mut An­heier

From left: Bavar­ian Prime Min­is­ter Horst See­hofer, Chair­man of the Chris­tian So­cial Union (CSU); Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, Pres­i­dent of the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union (CDU); and Martin Schulz, Pres­i­dent of the Ger­man So­cial Demo­cratic Party...

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