Germany Has Plunged Into Unprecedented Political Chaos

It’s going to be a while before Europe’s most powerful country has a stable government – and Angela Merkel probably won't be leading it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel departs in the early morning after preliminary coalition talks collapsed.  (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel departs in the early morning after preliminary coalition talks collapsed. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

As little as an hour before midnight Sunday night, there was a flicker of light at the end of the long tunnel — at least three of the four German parties participating in the laborious exploratory coalition talks thought so.

Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) had been hunkered down in tense, complicated negotiations for nearly five weeks, by all accounts the going was extremely tough: Never before had such a broad, diverse constellation of parties been the only workable coalition option possible in light of the outcome of a national election. Immediately after the Sept. 24 vote, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Christian Democrats’ partner in power for eight of the last 12 years, categorically refused to be Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sidekick for another term, having recorded its worst showing ever in the September vote — a disaster that the Social Democrats attributed directly to Merkel’s political style.

This left the four unlikely bedfellows, whose agendas span the political spectrum, to hash it out between them and find a way to rule Europe’s economic powerhouse and mainstay of stability. But they failed to do so, and what the near future holds — for Merkel, Germany, and Europe as a whole — is clouded by the events of the past sleepless weekend.

The collapse of the talks has thrown Germany into profound political crisis, casting it into waters the country has no experience in navigating: Never before in German postwar history has an election been repeated due to the inability to form a governing majority coalition. Nor since the days of the interwar Weimar Republic have Germany’s democratic parties been under such pressure from the far-right, which stands to gain whether there are fresh elections or not. Moreover, the unexpected turn of events further undermines Merkel’s authority, putting her in an even weaker position than where she had landed after the September vote, in which her CDU and the CSU fared significantly worse than expected — and a far-right party entered the Bundestag for the first time in its history.

But the limbo also casts Europe into an existential quandary: the European Union, mired in the severest crisis since its founding, was counting on Merkel and a new German government to deliver, in tandem with France’s President Emmanuel Macron, the energy and vision for far-reaching reforms to deepen European integration. EU proponents had assumed that both politicians would have strong, four-year mandates in front of them, as well as auspicious personal chemistry. But now everything, including the EU’s prospects, is up in the air — even the political future of Angela Merkel, who just months ago was a pillar of stability in a shaky, disoriented Europe.

The prospect of a “Jamaica coalition” (the colors of the four parties are green, black, and yellow, the colors of Jamaica’s flag) was anything but ideal for any of the parties involved. Yet since it was the only route to forging a government, all of the parties signaled their willingness and intention to compromise on the maximal demands they pledged in the election campaign — on taxation, immigration, climate protection, and social issues. It was assumed that if anyone could broker a government out of the competing interests involved, it was Merkel herself — a politico known for her sensibility, pragmatism, and ability to compromise across party lines. Obviously, such a mixed coalition implied that she would have to compromise her own positions on post-Brexit EU reform, making her less able to meet Macron half way. Macron was counting on Merkel to help him bind the eurozone more tightly together, to push investment in southern Europe, and to design new EU policies on taxation and defense. Now, however, even the less-than-optimal alternative of a weakened Merkel as head of a fractious Jamaica coalition is off the table — and something worse could well be in the wings.

“Simply in terms of time alone, this crisis with Germany unable to act for such an extended period of time throws all of the pressing business of the EU way off schedule,” explained Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, director Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future program. “There are very important decisions on the EU’s calendar for this year: addressing refugee policy, the future of the euro, and the EU’s finances. Now it’s just a long waiting list getting longer by the week.”

The talks’ implosion came quite unexpectedly, as a shock to all of the parties involved except the Free Democrats, who unexpectedly terminated the negotiations without consulting any of the other parties. In the best-case scenario, Sunday would have been the final day of the preliminary, exploratory talks, with the four parties announcing their intention to enter negotiations to form a government. Then, formal coalition talks would begin. But since progress still had to be made on two of the thorniest issues, environment and immigration, many observers thought the ongoing talks would have to be prolonged for several more days, or even a week.

But the Free Democrats dropped their bomb at midnight, with the party’s leader, Christian Lindner, saying there were still too many open issues and conflicting goals, and thus “no common basis for trust.” He and his team then rose and left the room. “It is better not to rule than to rule wrongly,” the FDP texted shortly after midnight. Later, he expanded slightly on the FDP’s sudden change of heart, saying that the four parties “could not develop a common vision for the modernization of our country.”

Yet for many observers this doesn’t answer the question of why the FDP threw in the towel so abruptly. Merkel said that the parties had been “on a path where we could have reached an agreement.” Cem Özdemir, a Green party leader, charged that the FDP rejected “the only possible constellation that was democratically possible after the elections.”

One distinct possibility is that the FDP simply didn’t want to take on the burden and inherent dangers of governance in the first place, particularly not in an unwieldy four-party coalition. “Was the spectacular exit of party chief Linder really so spontaneous as it was supposed to appear?” asked Stefan Kuzmany of Spiegel Online. “Did he want an agreement in the first place?” In the September vote, the FDP re-entered the Bundestag after a term outside of Germany’s national legislature, having failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle for representation in 2013 — after it had ruled together with Merkel’s Christian Democrats for four years. The FDP struck an unserious, amateurish image in office, referred to as a Gurkentruppe — literally a cucumber troop, figuratively a bunch of goofballs — and it paid for its unprofessionalism at the ballot box. The new, Linder-led FDP has almost no experience on the national level and thus had certainly hoped to spend a term in opposition before sharing in power.

Whatever the FDP’s motives — and the consequences for the party — the debacle’s biggest loser may be Merkel herself. It was the CDU/CSU’s poor showing — attributed by critics in her own party to Merkel’s lackluster campaign and centrist affinities — in the election that boxed the Christian Democrats into a corner with the Jamaica coalition as the only option. Thus the pressure on her was immense to somehow make it work. If Germany is obliged to hold new elections, which some observers see as unavoidable, she would leave the floundering, partnerless Christian Democrats an open target for the far-right.

“It’s an ideal situation for the AfD [far-right Alternative for Germany], which will paint the mainstream parties as bumbling elites ready to compromise everything and waste taxpayers’ money,” Detlev Claussen, a sociologist at University of Hannover, told Foreign Policy. “The AfD will look all the more respectable now. It’s very likely that come fresh elections we’ll see a further shift to the right. This would be extremely bad for Germany — and for Europe, too. Now there’ll be in less room for negotiating EU reforms, and Germany-first sentiment will be all the louder.”

Indeed, Merkel’s train wreck raises the question of her ability to lead the party and the nation. So far, she has not signaled that she intends to relinquish power, or to call new elections. But the possibility of her departure prior to starting a fourth term, unthinkable just a week ago, is now impossible to ignore.

What’s standing in the way of her riding peacefully into the sunset is that she has groomed no successor in the CDU. In her 12 years as chancellor, Merkel has mercilessly disposed of critics and (mostly male) rivals in the party, leading the CDU as its uncontested front person who broached no contrary opinions or personalities. Many thought that in the course of the coming term she’d anoint a protege who might first take over as CDU party head. One choice is the current defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen. Yet von der Leyen is a moderate in line with Merkel and thus not an option for the CDU/CSU’s conservatives, who blame the party’s trials on Merkel’s leftism. David McAllister, a German-British CDU former minister from Lower Saxony, is too little-known and has no national experience on his CV. Other figures, such as Saarland’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer or Julia Klöckner of Rhineland-Palatinate, are also young and completely untested on the big stage.

An astounding turn of events would be if Merkel stepped down now, as part of a deal with the SPD in which a grand coalition would be resumed, though with a CDU figure other than Merkel at its head. The SPD has ruled this out for now, but it could come under intense pressure to budge — from none other than Germany’s president (and former SPD candidate for chancellor), Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said Monday that Germany wasn’t close to calling new elections. A minority government is another option, perhaps the CDU/CSU and the Greens joining in a pact that opposition parties in the Bundestag would back on specific pieces of legislation. This has never happened in Germany, but it’s common course in other European countries.

It’s likely that Merkel soldiers on, muddling through the crisis as she has so many others. As badly as she’s been wounded, she’s still the country’s most beloved politician. Everybody in the republic has learned not to underestimate Angela Merkel. Anyway, the CDU would be very hard-pressed to reorient the party to another candidate in time to contest new elections. Moreover, Germans are aware that, of any German politician, Merkel has the most respect among her peers on the international stage. It’s hard to imagine anyone else leading the EU out of its current state of paralysis or representing Europe in dealing with autocrats such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of whom would be more than happy to see her gone.

This is a predicament so grave that Germany’s political elite will almost certainly band together, acutely aware that more is at stake than Germany’s well-being alone. How long Merkel will still be among them remains to be seen.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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