Two months after Germany held national elections on September 24, it remains without its new government. Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz, who has already ruled out returning to the “grand coalition” with Chancellor Angela Merkel, was likely to meet President Frank-Walter Steinmeier — who has urged the politicians to compromise — later Thursday. Merkel’s anticipated fourth term has begun with a serious political challenge.
What is the background of the logjam?
In the elections to form the 19th Bundestag, Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), emerged as the largest political bloc, even though it won only 246 out of the 709 seats (32.9% of the vote). The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), with which the CDU/CSU had been in alliance since 2013, won 153 seats (20.5%) in the Bundestag. This was the SPD’s worst-ever performance, and it declined another coalition with the CDU/CSU, preferring to be in the opposition, and hoping to counter the far-right Alternative for Germany (Afd), the biggest gainer in the elections.
Who are the AfD — and how have they precipitated this crisis?
The far-right, nationalist, anti-migrant, anti-Islam AfD stormed into the Bundestag for the first time in September, winning 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats, becoming the third biggest group in the House. Originally created in 2012 as an anti-Eurozone party, the AfD gained notoriety for its leaders’ reportedly anti-Semitic remarks and for the hard line they took in the aftermath of the migrant crisis — in 2016, AfD head Frauke Petry called for illegal migrants to be shot. In 2013, the AfD failed to enter Parliament by narrowly missing the required 5% electoral threshold, but made amends in 2017, snatching seats from the mainstream parties and shrinking the CSU/CDU in Merkel’s home base, the erstwhile East Germany.
Unlike several other rightwing populist parties in Europe, the AfD’s rise has little to do with the German economy, whose fundamentals — growth, employment, output — are at record highs. The AfD has been powered instead by Merkel’s “open-door” migration policy, under which over a million refugees were allowed into Germany in 2014-15. Several terror attacks through 2016, including one by a failed asylum seeker who drove a lorry through a Christmas market in Berlin killing 12, intensified the fears and insecurities that the AfD tapped into.
How did Merkel’s coalition-building efforts progress?
With the SPD declining to return to the 2013-17 coalition, the Chancellor began talks with the pro-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP, 80 seats) and the Green Party (67 seats) to stitch together a so-called “Jamaica” coalition, a name drawing from the flag colours of the three parties — black, green and yellow — which are also those of the flag of Jamaica. But the FDP and Greens disagree on a range of issues including closing coal plants and phasing out automobiles with combustion engines; and both disagree with the CDU/CSU on taxation — the FDP wants lower rates, the Greens want the rich and the corporations to be taxed more. Although the CDU/CSU has largely stood firm behind Merkel, the conservative CSU seeks a limit on refugees. On Sunday, the contradictions overtook efforts to strike a deal and the FDP walked out, citing an atmosphere of mistrust.
What happens now?
There are three options.
First, Merkel could head a minority government, with the CDU/CSU tying up with one among the Greens or FDP. This would be unprecedented at the federal level; a CDU/CSU-FDP government would be 29 seats short of majority, and CDU/CSU-Greens would be 42 seats short. Merkel herself is “very sceptical”, and has said she would prefer fresh elections instead.
Two, the SPD could agree to enter into a new coalition. President Steinmeier has appealed to parties to bend to the “unprecedented situation” for the sake of Germany; SPD leader Martin Schulz has, however, emphasised his disinterest in being Merkel’s “junior partner”. The SPD could demand a fresh leadership contest — and Merkel’s resignation.
Three, the President could call fresh elections. However, in Germany, with its history of unstable governments in the 1920s and 1930s and the collapse of the Weimar Republic, this step must pass through several prolonging clauses. Fresh polls could take place only by spring.
There is no certainty, however, that fresh elections would help Merkel consolidate power. Recent polls suggest they wouldn’t swing the balance back towards the Conservatives; rather, some analysts believe, they could strengthen the AfD further — something no mainstream party wants. This itself may be a reason why a coalition government headed by Merkel might, in fact, emerge.
What are the implications of this situation beyond Germany?
As the Chancellor of the strongest power in Europe since 2005, Merkel has been de facto head of the European Union. She is often contrasted with US President Donald Trump and seen as the defender of Western liberalism — the new “leader of the free world”. The EU faces hard challenges from Brexit, the Catalan crisis and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In earlier challenges, like 2010’s Greek debt crisis, Merkel united disparate voices for European unity. Her own uncertainty now worries the EU, where many countries face challenges from their own right-wing nationalisms.