Germany’s grand coalition by default
There will be great sighs of relief in Berlin, across the EU and well beyond when the new government is sworn in, but there is a bumpy road ahead for the much-weakened Merkel and her partners.
IT is rare for leaders, as successful as they might be, to leave office at the height of their power. When the next German election takes place, the name of the country’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel, is not likely to appear on the ballot papers. She enters the final straight of her long run of leadership bruised from last September’s general election results, which forced her into six months of tough negotiations to form a coalition. The once most powerful leader in Europe now looks rather vulnerable, and might not even complete her fourth term as chancellor.
At the end of this protracted effort to form a coalition, Germany has ended up with a “GroKo” (grand coalition) similar to the one in place before the election, comprising Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the Social Democrats (SPD), and the Christian Social Union, but this time with at least two major differences.
First, the relative failure of these three parties in the elections means that they return to the Bundestag (the German federal parliament) with a considerably reduced majority. The SPD suffered its worst election result since Germany became a federal republic in 1949, while the CDU/CSU lost 65 seats, leaving them with 246 out of the 709 available in the Bundestag. The coalition’s majority of only 89 might mean rocky times ahead for maintaining discipline, staying in power for the full four-year term and being able to forcefully and effectively promote the government’s agenda. The parties combined received the support of just over half of the voters, and this must be a concern for them, increasingly so as they approach the next elections. Second, the SPD, unlike in 2013, is a reluctant partner and has shown only half-hearted commitment to the new coalition. It agreed to enter into negotiations to form another GroKo only when the initial post-election coalition talks between the CDU/CSU alliance, the liberal Free Democrats and the Green Party failed last November.
Merkel’s inability to form a government with the smaller parties left her with two rather unattractive alternatives to a grand coalition: Either forming a minority government or calling fresh elections. The first meant a weak government at a time when Germany and Europe are facing mounting challenges at home and abroad. There is, ironically, an expectation that modern Germany should continue to play the role of a balanced and pragmatic world leader. The EU needs a stable Germany, which, together with Emmanuel Macron’s leadership in France, has the ability to steer Europe away from the dark alleys of the Brexiteers and the ultra-right. Germany and France have been left to lead the charge against those who are threatening the values and stability of Europe, whether from within the EU or outside it — “toxic” Russia, for instance.
The second option, of fresh elections, would have been very risky for Merkel, as the trend set last September might well have continued and further eroded her party’s support. Moreover, the last elections legitimized the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which gained nearly 13 percent of the popular vote. There is no guarantee this was a one-off protest mainly against the government’s immigration policy. To give this party, whose detestable ideology is now apparently acceptable in Germany, another opportunity at the ballot box so soon after the last one might have proved to be a gross misjudgement. Hence it came as a great relief when nearly two-thirds of the near half-million rank-and-file SPD members backed the leadership’s recommendation to join the coalition.
For these reasons alone, another CDU-SPD coalition was almost the obvious solution to the post-election stalemate. For one thing, it creates room for Germany to begin, in a gradual and orderly manner, to plan for the post-Merkel era. For the SPD, however, joining the coalition poses a great risk and an equally great opportunity. The categorical post-election declaration by its then-leader, Martin Schulz, that it would not join the government and would remain on the opposition benches for a period of reflection and rebuilding, has left the party, now that it has joined the government, with a credibility deficit and hardly any time to reflect and regroup.
Nevertheless, it is also the case that it could be perceived positively by the voters as putting the country’s interest ahead of its own. Even if there is an element of truth in this, it would be naive to believe that the good of the country was the only consideration in the SPD’s decision. With the other parties out of the equation, the SPD was left as the only potential partner for government. This presented it with the opportunity to influence both the new government’s agenda and to cherry-pick the ministries it wanted to control, and not surprisingly it went for the foreign and finance ministries first and foremost. This has given it immense influence over Europe’s largest economy, and the men in charge of those two ministries, Heiko Maas and Olaf Scholz respectively, being pro-European politicians, are expected to further shape future integration efforts in the eurozone.
There will be great sighs of relief in Germany, across the EU, and well beyond when the new government is sworn in on Wednesday. But there is a bumpy road ahead. Many in Merkel’s party believe she has made too many concessions that will result in a shift from the party’s austerity-like economic prudence to the more spending-inclined platform of the SPD. Moreover, the new government is divided over the future of the eurozone, between those who support the drive for integration and those conservatives in the CDU who are skeptical about it. Inevitably, when the next general election appears on the horizon and draws ever closer, a succession battle will begin in earnest in all parties. And all of this casts doubt on whether the new government will even survive a full term.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg