Merkel brand of politics fuels populism
Germany will be crippled by this new, grand coalition, which will drive the elites further away from voters
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.