Merkel brand of pol­i­tics fu­els pop­ulism

Ger­many will be crip­pled by this new, grand coali­tion, which will drive the elites fur­ther away from vot­ers

Gulf News - - Opinion -

t first sight, the de­ci­sion of Ger­many’s two big par­ties to re-form their grand coali­tion looks like a tri­umph of con­sen­sus-build­ing. In re­al­ity, by clos­ing the deal to ex­tend her grip on power, Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel has opened a can of worms. This ac­cord marks the twi­light of an era in Ger­man pol­i­tics.

Coali­tion-build­ing has al­ways been a messy busi­ness, but the twists and turns of the deal-mak­ing in Ber­lin since last Septem­ber’s in­de­ci­sive elec­tion have added to a mood of dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the Ger­man po­lit­i­cal class. Squab­bles over who would get which plum post and perks have given the slow­mo­tion process of re­cou­pling the So­cial Democrats (SPD) and Merkel’s Chris­tian Democrats (CDU) a sleazy air. Not least be­cause the SPD had cam­paigned on a prom­ise not to share power with Chan­cel­lor Merkel again af­ter spend­ing eight of the past 12 years as her part­ner.

The SPD’s de­risory 20 per cent of the vote at that elec­tion showed how far they had shed their sup­port to the post-Com­mu­nist Left, which at­tracted 10 per cent, or to ap­a­thy, which scored even bet­ter. How­ever, the CDU was hardly flavour of the month, ei­ther. Out­side ob­servers have long over­rated Merkel’s pop­u­lar­ity. In of­fice, to be sure, she has been Europe’s key power bro­ker, but she has never been a vote-get­ter. Pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion is of­ten as­sumed to pro­duce a convergence on the moder­ate cen­tre.

Maybe so, but if the moder­ate cen­tre doesn’t solve prob­lems, that convergence leaves space for more rad­i­cal voices. Ger­many’s neigh­bours — and many Ger­mans — have been most alarmed by the surge of sup­port for the anti-im­mi­grant Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) which will now form the of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion. That is a spec­tac­u­lar shock to the sys­tem. But don’t for­get the Left’s steady ad­vance among West Ger­mans who would once have voted SPD. It is also worth re­mem­ber­ing that the deal is not done yet. Merkel’s CDU will vote on it at a con­fer­ence in a cou­ple of weeks and will prob­a­bly en­dorse her new gov­ern­ment, but watch for how many del­e­gates vote against. That will be a marker for how shaky her hold on the party is. More prob­lem­atic still is the open re­volt by the SPD’s youth wing. Imi­tat­ing the tac­tics of the Cor­bynist Mo­men­tum move­ment, they have been reg­is­ter­ing thou­sands of new party mem­bers so that they can vote against the deal in a postal bal­lot at the start of March.

Even if the deal sur­vives, the con­sen­sus em­bod­ied in the new grand coali­tion looks set to crip­ple Ger­many. To get the SPD back into bed, Merkel has agreed to throw away the hard-won fis­cal sta­bil­ity which pro­vided Ber­lin with tax sur­pluses. Fis­cal con­ser­vatism was her last tra­di­tional CDU pol­icy. Many be­lieve Merkel has also sold out her cau­tious small busi­ness base by agree­ing to the SPD’s so­cial spend­ing and euro-agenda, ask­ing the Ger­man tax­payer to un­der­write an am­bi­tious EU bud­get and the debts of those shar­ing the com­mon cur­rency. Last year’s elec­tion showed that the con­sen­sus in Ger­many’s es­tab­lish­ment has shal­low roots in so­ci­ety. If the two shrink­ing big par­ties push on with their am­bi­tious but un­pop­u­lar agenda, next time Ger­mans re­ally could elect an un­man­age­able Bun­destag as vot­ers splin­ter to fringe can­di­dates who share their im­me­di­ate but con­tra­dic­tory con­cerns. Merkel’s rep­u­ta­tion for shrewd states­man­ship wouldn’t sur­vive that out­come. Af­ter decades of suc­cess, to show Schaden­freude now would be churl­ish. How­ever, maybe Bri­tain, and Ger­many’s neigh­bours, will be grate­ful to Ger­many for teach­ing us a les­son by be­ing a bad ex­am­ple. Mark Al­mond is di­rec­tor of the Cri­sis Re­search In­sti­tute, Ox­ford.

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