Merkel’s Difficult Road to a Coalition

Germany’s acting finance minister, Peter Altmaier, is fond of playing the cosmopolitan European diplomat on visits to Brussels. Articulate and multilingual, Altmaier doesn’t shy away from speaking a bit of Dutch into the microphone and is perfectly at home chatting with outgoing Eurogroup head Jeroen Dijsselbloem or delivering a withering critique of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tax plan.

But once the doors close and his counterparts begin asking him the question that is foremost on their minds – when is Europe’s most important country going to finally assemble a new government? – Altmaier has no choice but to tell them the sobering truth. The constitutional situation in Germany, he notes, is complicated. Furthermore, if a renewed coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) – a pairing known as a “grand coalition” – does, in fact, take shape, the SPD has said it plans to have the grassroots vote on it. That will take time, Altmaier says, looking into the shocked faces surrounding him.

With its current provisional government, Germany is in the process of gambling away its excellent political reputation in Europe. The country used to be considered a paragon of democracy with a parliamentary system that worked just as reliably as its cars and industrial machinery.

Yet with the German general election, held on Sept. 24, rapidly fading into the rearview mirror and parties like the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the SPD – both of which with plenty of experience as members of governing coalitions in Germany – shying away from joining Merkel’s conservatives in a political alliance, many abroad have begun seeing the country in a new light. The growing skepticism started, of course, with Berlin’s misadventures in its attempt to build a simple airport and the doubts have gained credence with a series of other mishaps, most recently German rail’s inability to get its much-ballyhooed new high-speed line between Munich and Berlin working properly. And now the country can’t even seem to assemble a governing coalition. Can’t the Germans do anything anymore? For the time being, the damage done isn’t overwhelming. The acting cabinet, in office since October, has been leading the republic with the listless efficiency one might expect. And there are plenty of people out there who approve of a government that focuses exclusively on the day-to-day and is limited in the amount of money it can spend.

But the longer the vacuum continues, the more obvious the disadvantages will become. Important decisions are being delayed, Germany’s heft in Europe and the world is eroding and – perhaps most importantly – the standstill in Berlin is bolstering populist critiques of the parliamentary system and their claims that the political elite only care about their own parties and not the good of the country as a whole.

‘Embarrassing Display’

With the first round of coalition negotiations – which sought to assemble a government comprised of the conservatives, the FDP and the Greens – having failed, a clear majority of Germans believe the country to be “in a difficult situation” according to surveys. A poll taken by the Allensbach Institute resulted in replies like: “It is embarrassing to put such disunity on display to the world.” It could get even more embarrassing shortly. With the conservatives and the SPD soon to begin preliminary coalition discussions, doubts about a successful conclusion to those talks are greater than ever. The idea of joining Merkel in another governing coalition is anathema to many in the SPD while some conservatives have been vocal about their preference for a minority government, a position they share with a number of SPD members.

That means that Merkel is faced with fighting a battle on two fronts: One pitting her against the critics in her own camp; and one aimed at convincing the Social Democrats to join her.

Merkel herself hasn’t been shy about her affinity for governing together with the SPD. In mid-October, at a time when the first round of coalition talks with the FDP and Greens seemed to be going well, the cabinet of the chancellor’s outgoing coalition with the SPD met on the seventh floor of the Chancellery. Nobody there seriously thought there was a chance that their alliance might continue for another four years. And wine-fueled amicability was in generous supply that evening, with senior politicians from both parties dropping the formality that had characterized their working relationships. Merkel held a brief farewell address in which she sang the praises of the grand coalition. She said that cooperation with the SPD had been outstanding and expressed her doubts that a different coalition could ever work together so harmoniously and smoothly.

Preferences for a Minority Government

The problem, though, is that among her conservatives, enthusiasm for the alliance with the SPD isn’t nearly as profound. Indeed, the intransigence has become so unabashed that Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), saw fit to complain. Last Sunday, he joined Merkel in the Chancellery to bemoan the numerous statements of grand-coalition skepticism coming out of the CDU. He said that he had counted 14 such statements coming from the CDU in recent days. “You have to put a stop to it,” Seehofer told Merkel.

Both Seehofer and Merkel would like the talks with the SPD to go as quickly as possible. “The world is waiting for us to be able to engage again,” the chancellor said on Monday. Others, though, don’t see it that way. The party’s economically liberal wing prefers a minority government while Jens Spahn, perhaps Merkel’s most dangerous adversary within the CDU, has demanded that the conservatives not abandon a single core position in their talks with the SPD. If they do, he said, he would also be in favor of a minority government.

Some suspect that Spahn may not be primarily concerned with the party’s positions on the issues. Indeed, conservative floor leader Volker Kauder sharply upbraided Spahn and his allies during a recent meeting of CDU leaders: “You are only interested in getting a cabinet seat,” he said. And indeed, were the CDU to opt for a minority government, Spahn’s chances of receiving a cabinet portfolio would be much greater.

Spahn, of course, has made no secret of his ambitions. Thus far, though, he doesn’t have the necessary governing experience to perhaps succeed Merkel one day.Concerns about a repeat of the grand coalition, though, are much greater within the Social Democrats. After the party’s catastrophic results in the Sept. 24 election, the SPD had seemed relieved that it could flee into the opposition. Indeed, even after Merkel proved unable to assemble a coalition with the FDP and the Greens, the SPD continued to play hard-to-get – until German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has suspended his SPD membership while he is the country’s head of state, made it clear he wasn’t in favor of holding new elections. But the party clearly isn’t eager to join another government. The word coming out of the SPD is that a government before Easter will only be possible if talks go completely smoothly.

What is a KoKo?

Following the preliminary talks, the SPD plans to hold a party congress to decide on whether to enter formal coalition talks. Should those talks then produce an agreement, the final deal would then be voted on by the SPD grassroots.

But there is a fair amount of confusion within the Social Democrats at the moment and it remains completely unclear what exactly party leaders want. Whereas party head Martin Schulz and floor leader Andrea Nahles recently indicated that they are leaning in favor of a grand coalition, senior party member Malu Dreyer, the SPD governor of Rhineland-Palatinate, is more in favor of a minority government.

How exactly a minority government might be beneficial to the SPD isn’t entirely clear. Furthermore, Dreyer herself decided against a minority government in her own state in 2016, preferring to cobble together a three-party coalition. Still, her voice is a weighty one in the party.

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