Four More Years

As expected, really, Angela Merkel has been elected to a fourth term to serve as Chancellor following the federal election in Germany on Sunday. What was unexpected, however, was the significant drop in support for her CDU at the polls and the level of support (13% nationally) the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) received at Ms Merkel’s detriment. Germany enters a period of political uncertainty (a rare occurrence these days) as the CDU/CSU alliance seeks new coalition partners to form the next Government as Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats (SPD) suffered their worst result since the post-war era, garnering only 20% of Germans’ votes.

The widely anticipated, and eagerly awaited, outcome of coalition talks is the formation of the so-called “Jamaica coalition” of the Union, the liberal Free Democrats (FPD), and the environmentalist Greens- called “Jamaica” because the official colours of the three parties are the colours of the Jamaican flag (black, green and yellow). An alliance of these parties creates significant headaches for the Chancellor- the Jamaica coalition has never been done before at the national level and at the state level, its lifespan it generally short.

Before Ms Merkel can wrangle an FDP-Green pact with her Union, she has some negotiating to do within her own ranks. The Union’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU, saw its share of the vote in the region drop by 10%, almost all of which went to the AfD, who won 10 seats in Bavaria. Horst Seehofer, Bavaria’s State-President and the leader of the CSU, has already begun to turn up the pressure on the Chancellor and demand changes to Germany’s immigration and security policies. Expect Mr Seehofer to demand an influential ministry.

Some in Merkel’s circle worry that in wake of Sunday’s result — the CSU scored below 40 percent in Bavaria, its worst-ever result — tensions between the two sister parties will worsen. Amidst pressure from the right-wing AfD, Merkel may be forced to the right on these issues to win back the 1 million Union voters who chose the AfD this time in four years. “The big losses for the CSU and the strength of the AfD in Bavaria in the election have shown that this strategy of copying the populists will only bolster the original,” says Dagmar Freitag, an SPD member of the Bundestag.

SPD chairman Martin Schulz.

Following the results, SPD leadership immediately declared that they would go into opposition, ruling out another four years of “grand coalition” with Ms Merkel and her CDU. “I think this has been the right decision”, says  Freitag. “The voters have clearly stated their discontent with the ‘grand coalition’, we should respect this.”  A strong opposition to the Government will have to be SPD-led and will have a crucial role, according to Ms Freitag. “In times of rising right wing populism, we are also faced with the responsibility to step up as the opposition leader in the German Parliament in order not to leave this important role to the populists.” E. Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official and now a Senior Fellow for Europe and Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC, argues that “the SPD has a long road to travel back to the status of a ‘governing party’, but the time to start is now. A merger with the Left Party, or parts of it, is entirely reasonable within the next four years.” The Social Democrats start their role as opposition party by electing Andrea Nahles parliamentary party leader, who has been a committed advocate for the SPD to return to its left-wing roots for many years.

With another “grand coalition” unlikely, if not already off the table, attention turns to the Jamaica option. Many believe forming a Jamaica coalition will be a struggle due to the stark differences between the Greens and liberals on issues ranging from climate change to immigration. During a TV debate among the party leaders on election night, Green party co-chief Katrin Göring-Eckardt told FDP boss Christian Lindner that she felt the two parties were “divided on a lot” of topics, particularly the environment. Lindner insisted they were not so different.

The FDP’s plans for economic reforms and tax cuts are likely to be a bone of contention. The party has also signalled resistance to a push by French President Emmanuel Macron to deepen the integration of the eurozone. Merkel’s conservatives have shown a willingness to consider Macron’s proposals, although their commitment has been far from wholehearted.

Another tricky issue will be who gets to control powerful ministries. As Mr Merry argues, The FDP must demand — and get — the Finance Ministry. They blundered accepting the Foreign Office last time, but now have enough electoral strength with ten percent of the vote to justify Finance.” Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel’s long-time Finance Minister and the architect of the Greek bailouts and ESM, has already indicated he will leave his post to assume the role of Bundestag President, as the legislature’s longest serving member is certainly entitled to do.

Coalition talks are expected to take some time, but governing must continue, particularly in the areas of migration, regional and global security, and Brexit. A new coalition will almost certainly have a significant impact on these issues as well. With Merkel very much considered to be the de facto leader of the free world at this stage, and of course with Brexit talks ongoing as well, it will be interesting to see how a Jamaica coalition might influence her decision-making in these areas.

For Germany, Europe, and the world, Angela Merkel’s victory is both a nod to the past and a hint at the future. She has said repeatedly this this, her fourth term, will be her last. Who will succeed her? The answer is far from certain.All that is certain is that the most powerful woman in the world will remain in power to influence, if not lead, global debates on issues such as trade, European integration, the environment, human rights, and international law. Germany’s democratic institutions are strong and mainstream, centrist and progressive parties still won the lion-share of the vote among Germans, indicating that the support for AfD candidates was out of protest instead of party loyalty.

Attention shifts to the state election in Lower Saxony, Germany’s second-most populous state, on 15 October, where the CDU is looking to oust the governing SPD from power (and appears on track to do so). Should the SPD lose this race, Schulz may be forced to resign as party chairman. Merkel will be looking to this election to assure her base that she is still in charge and that her party is in control. Though weakened by the federal election results, however, Merkel remains strong as ever.

Comments are closed.