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David Clarke is Senior Lecturer at the University of Bath
As Germany’s two largest parties, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, met with the country’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the end of November to discuss possible coalition talks, media speculation in Germany and abroad focused on the perceived weakening of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had only recently clung on to her top spot in the Forbes list of the world’s 100 most powerful women.
Following the surprise withdrawal of Christian Lindner’s Free Democrats from talks to form a ‘Jamaica coalition’ with the Christian Democrats, the Christian Social Union and the Greens, Social Democrats remain wary of entering into another grand coalition with Merkel. Although she is still the most popular of Germany’s party leaders, her position suddenly no longer looks so secure.
So how did we get here? Two factors are important to bear in mind. Firstly, Merkel has established a reputation for herself for sucking the lifeblood from her coalition partners. After the first grand coalition of the 21st century (2005‒2009), the Social Democrats were punished by voters. Although there are complex reasons for this, Merkel’s personal profile (especially on the European stage) and the Social Democrats’ junior position in the coalition seem to have led some voters to perceive them as either a hindrance or an irrelevance.
Merkel’s next government, in coalition with the Free Democrats, actually led to the junior partner dropping out of the Bundestag altogether, when it failed to achieve the necessary 5% share of the vote. Although both of the partners in the most recent grand coalition suffered at the ballot box in 2017, the Social Democrats emerged with their worst post-war result.
There is no ‘Merkelism’ that could easily be identified
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Lindner decided to back out of coalition negotiations. Although he claimed that “it is better not to govern than to govern badly”, he may have seen this move as more advantageous to his party in the long-run.
Lindner has been a prominent critic of Merkel’s handling of the migration crisis. The Free Democrats’ return to the Bundestag was therefore at least in part the result of their strategy of presenting themselves as a respectable alternative to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Arguably, it became clear to Linder that he would not have things entirely his own way on this issue in coalition talks that included the Greens, and therefore decided that he would be better off building on his electoral support from opposition.
The second factor to bear in mind is the shifting party landscape in Germany. Alongside the two main centrist parties, which can manage to attract over 50% of the votes between them, we now have four other parties that can achieve around 9-13% of the vote each: the Greens, the post-communist party The Left, the Free Democrats and the AfD.
Whether the AfD’s popularity will continue in the long-term remains to be seen but this new situation makes coalition building increasingly difficult for Merkel. Furthermore, as polls showed following Lindner’s departure from the talks, Germans are unlikely to shift their allegiances in any significant way if a new vote is called.
Merkel is a pragmatic politician who has profited in her own country from the perception that she is a competent steward of the German and European economy in a time of crisis. However, this does not translate into a clear political vision. There is no ‘Merkelism’ that could easily be identified, only an ability to reassure German voters that they will be protected from global instability.
What this also means is that the largest opposition party in the Bundestag will be the AfD
That image took a battering during the migration crisis, when the Chancellor unilaterally opened Germany’s borders to refugees. In doing so, she created a space for the growth of the AfD, whose rise to prominence has made it so much more difficult for her to build a new coalition.
Not all AfD voters are disgruntled former Christian Democrat voters: indeed, former non-voters made up the largest group of those who chose the AfD. Nevertheless, Merkel lost over a million votes to the AfD, and her potential coalition partners were weakened by them as well to differing degrees.
The most likely outcome at the time of writing is that Merkel will survive to lead a rather beleaguered and fractious re-boot of the grand coalition. Whether she will serve out a full term and stand as her party’s candidate for the Chancellorship in the next election is open to question, however.
What this also means is that the largest opposition party in the Bundestag will be the AfD. The outcome of this is unpredictable. The profile it will give this challenger may, if managed effectively, allow them to establish themselves as a ‘normal’ party on the national scene.
Equally, it may expose the AfD’s squabbling and the unpalatable views of some of its representatives to even greater scrutiny. If it proves to be an ineffective and unconstructive opposition, and if the issue of migration recedes in voters’ minds during this parliamentary term, the AfD may find it more difficult to repeat its success.
For now, at least, Merkel’s status as the world’s most powerful woman may be preserved.
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