German Chancellor Angela Merkel took her usual stoic approach to the collapse of coalition talks to form a new government. Negotiations ended, she said “an einem wirklich, ich würde fast sagen historischen Tag.” “On really what I would almost call an historical day.”
It is. Since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, every election has yielded a functioning coalition.
This could be the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel, who is widely seen as a force for stability in both Germany and the EU. She came to power in 2005, when tension between the US and Europe over the Iraq war was still intense. She dominated the scene in EU negotiations over the economic crises of 2008-09, as much of the world predicted the demise of the Euro. The Euro emerged stronger, the EU survived the crisis, and Merkel’s Germany became a beacon of stability.
Now she faces her greatest challenge. Germany is a parliamentary system, meaning that the government is led by the Chancellor (in some countries called the Prime Minister) who leads both the legislative and executive branches of government. Voting for parliament is by party, with each party getting seats representing the proportion of votes they receive. For one party to get a majority, it would have to get about 50% of the vote. The only time that happened in Germany was in 1959.
The 2013 elections yielded a grand coalition, including the CDU/CSU (Merkel’s party) and SPD. The SPD refused to continue the grand coalition, and for good reason. It is the main left of center party, while Merkel leads the main right of center party. When the two “big tent” parties govern together, it automatically strengthens the smaller parties, which become the only opposition. The SPD couldn’t really run against CDU government policies in 2017, since the SPD was itself part of the government the last four years. The result was a catastrophic loss of support and their worst result since before WWII.
The usual coalition partner for the CDU/CSU is the FDP, but together they’d have only 326 seats, well short of the 355 required. The Left party is too far left to make a coalition with the conservatives possible, while the AfD is a right wing nationalist party with views anathema to Merkel and most conservatives. That leaves only the Greens as a potential third coalition partner – the so called “Jamaica coalition,” as the colors of the parties (black, yellow and green) match the Jamaican flag.
The reason this is so difficult is the emergence of the AfD, a populist nationalist anti-immigrant anti-EU party with neo-nazi overtones. They emerged with 12.6% of the vote, the third largest party. A million of their voters came from the conservative Christian Democrats, but another two million came from people who hadn’t voted in the last election, or had voted for other (presumably right wing) parties. Merkel does not want a coalition with AfD because that could legitimize them. An alternative right wing party would be competition for the Christian Democrats – and Merkel and her party have a history of being pro-EU and in favor of helping refugees and others suffering war and hardship.
So what next? Perhaps the most likely possibility is new elections. Germans are loathe to go that route, as the stability of the Federal Republic is something prized – they recall how instability in the Weimar Republic helped create chaos and bring Hitler to power. For that reason pressure is on the SPD to reprise their role as partner in a grand coalition. But the SPD’s vote share of 20.5% was catastrophically bad, and most believe it would be political suicide to join Merkel in another coalition.
If there are new elections, there is no guarantee the results will be any different. This time, the Greens and the CDU/CSU were close to an agreement on contentious issues, but the FDP (a centrist pro-business party) choose to drop out of negotiations. 55% of Germans blame the FDP for the failure of the negotiations.
The fear is that this will strengthen the AfD, though many polls show them at the peak of their strength. If the results of new elections are basically the same, the pressure to make either a grand coalition or a Jamaica coalition work will be immense. But it’s also possible that new elections could help Merkel.
Merkel’s strength is her ability to stay cool under pressure and handle difficult situations. A quantum chemist by training – a real scientist – Merkel is also the first East German to become Chancellor since reunification in 1990. Many Germans fearing chaos might turn to the woman affectionately none as “Mutti” (mom). She lost some popularity due to her willingness to accept Syrian refugees in 2015, but her ability to stay cool and calm and weather storms makes her still the most admired German politician.
So this may be Merkel’s most important moment. Can she navigate the German political scene, including the possibility of new elections, and avoid on going political crisis? The potential collapse of the Euro and the Greek economy in 2009 was a crisis few thought anyone could handle, but she deftly built alliances and pushed for a solution grudgingly accepted by all sides. If anyone can handle this with grace under pressure, it’s Angela Merkel.