Ger­many’s grand coali­tion by de­fault

Arab News - - OPINION - YoSSi mekel­berg | Spe­cial To arab NewS

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

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