Merkel on shaky political ground after coalition talks fall apart

Negotiations to form a new coalition to govern Germany collapsed on Sunday evening after a month of talks.

While Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has encouraged all political parties to return to negotiations, the current positions of their respective leaders leaves open the possibility of a minority government or an election rerun for the first time in the country’s post-war history. The upset has also left incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel, for so long a steady political presence in Europe, in limbo and potentially struggling to secure a fourth term.

How we got here 

In Germany’s federal elections of September 24, Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with Bavarian sister-party the CSU, won 33 percent of the vote. It was the largest share by a clear margin, though a decrease on the 2013 result, losing 65 Bundestag seats.

The second-placed centrist Social Democratic Party (SPD), despite retaining 21 percent of the vote, also lost ground on its previous result, losing 40 seats.

The big winners were Alternative for Germany (AfD), the party of far-right eurosceptics, and centrist free-market advocates the Free Democratic Party (FDP), which won 94 and 80 seats, respectively.

Germany’s last government was formed through an alliance between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, but SPD leader Martin Schulz has ruled out a repeat of this partnership, saying that the election losses by the two ruling parties was a rejection of their so-called “grand coalition.”

The AfD has defined itself by rejecting the internationalism of Merkel’s government, and the only other significant parliamentary party, the Left, are opposed to the CDU’s social conservatism.

This left Merkel with one last option in her bid to reach a majority of 355 seats – she would have to broker a coalition between the CDU/CSU (246 seats), FDP (80) and Greens (67). The alliance is often referred to as a “Jamaica” coalition, due to the colours of the Jamaican flag – the CDU’s colour is black, the FDP’s yellow.

This form of partnership has worked at state level but has never been seen in Germany’s federal parliament.

The key issues

When the talks collapsed on Sunday night, FDP leader Christian Lindner said there was “no basis for trust” between the three parties.

Public international broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that immigration was the most contentious issue. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015, allowing over two million to make homes in Germany, has divided opinion.

There is division on immigration between the CDU and CSU, with Merkel’s Bavarian partners wanting a much stricter line, as they feel the most pressure from the anti-immigration AfD. The FDP’s position on a future limit of around 200,000 new entries per year is not far off the CDU’s stance.

The Greens want commitments to allow family reunification. Politico Europe reports that the FDP’s refusal to agree to this was key to the breakdown in talks.

Other sticking points include environmental policy, according to the German branch of pan-European news outlet the Local. The Greens are pushing for a firmer commitment on reducing Germany’s carbon footprint through policies the FDP considers too restrictive. The FDP is also thought to want a change to Germany’s international commitments, including a guarantee it will not agree to take on undertakings such as Greece’s 2010 bailout, which was made possible by German lending.

Lindner’s view that the three parties did not share “a common vision on modernizing” Germany may indicate that a dispute over the reunification-era “soli” (solidarity) tax, as highlighted by Deutsche Welle, is also significant. The tax was intended to finance infrastructure in Eastern Germany and still contributes to federal spending. The FDP wants it quickly phased out.

Speculating why the FDP pulled out of the coalition talks, the Bavarian newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung says that, according to Lindner, on many key issues the CDU/CSU and FDP do not appear to be too far apart, but it may have become impossible to achieve the required compromises while simultaneously keeping the Greens on board.

Read more

Deutsche WelleGermany’s coalition talks: What are the sticking points?

The Local – The three top hurdles in German coalition talks – German coalition talks collapse

Süddeutsche Zeitung – Why the FDP broke the Jamaican negotiations

What next?

On Monday, Shulz and other SPD leaders repeated the assertion that there would not be another “Grand Coalition”, saying that they are not afraid of new elections.

German newspaper Bild reports that President Steinmeier was critical of the parties on Monday and called on them to reconsider their positions. This appears targeted at the SPD for refusing to enter negotiations.

According to Deutsche Welle, Merkel staying on as chancellor in a minority government is “not really an option.” Germany has never been ruled by a minority government and attempting to govern while constantly negotiating with different factions would be at odds with the chancellor’s promise to maintain stability.

Despite Schulz’s repeated view that the SPD would not enter another coalition, Bild points out that the collapse of the Jamaica coalition talks means that the SPD could demand concessions from Merkel if they were to relax their stance. Steinmeier is thought to be opposed to a rerun of the election, and as an SPD member he could use his influence to put a Grand Coalition back on the table.

The only other option appears to be a rerun of the election. As reported by Süddeutsche Zeitung, that would be unpopular with voters. If the main parties cannot come to an agreement, the anti-establishment backlash that brought the AfD into the Bundestag could swell.

Many outlets are blaming the FDP for walking out of coalition talks, according to a paper review by Deutsche Welle. In September, the FDP’s voters would have expected Merkel to take the most seats, and were therefore effectively voting for a CDU-led coalition, backed by the FDP. In a rerun, they might therefore switch to the CDU as the option most likely to end the uncertainty, suggests a comment piece in the UK’s New Statesman.

Read more on the potential fallout:

“The woman who stood for stability like no other and for calculability, has maneuvered herself into a hopeless situation,” Jakob Augstein calls for Merkel to resign in Der Spiegel

“The chancellor told Germans they had a moral duty to help when she decided to offer shelter to an unprecedented wave of migrants fleeing war and poverty in 2015. But she failed to convince enough people,” Merkel’s convictions risk her downfall, according to Bloomberg

“Germany, long a bedrock of political and fiscal stability, is now a swirl of uncertainty, and an array of EU policymaking could be slowed or stalled as a result,” –

“The thing about snap elections is that voters don’t like them and that there is a political cost if you are blamed for holding one. FDP voters also knew full well that a coalition with Merkel was on the cards. They might simply vote for Merkel directly this time,” – Stephen Bush in The New Statesman

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