Merkel: A new beginning, or the beginning of the end?
In the current international political environment, where experienced, pragmatic and morally sound leadership is in short supply, the potential demise of Merkel is a major threat to domestic and international stability. One hastens to say it is way too soon to write the obituary of her 12 years as Germany’s chancellor, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Merkel, who before the elections looked like the only genuine strong and stable European leader, came out of it badly bruised. Her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), lost more than 20 percent of its support, leaving it with only a third of the seats in the Bundestag (Parliament). This has left Merkel and her party vulnerable and with very restricted room to manoeuver in coalition negotiations.
Her relative failure at the ballot box must be regarded as a surprise, considering how well the economy is doing compared to other European countries. In 1992, James Carville, Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign strategist, coined the now-famous phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.” It seems the German electorate has defied this logic by the way it cast its ballots.
The economy is in extremely good shape, growing at a rate of 2.5 percent; the business sector consistently expresses its confidence; employment is almost at capacity; and Germany has a considerable budget surplus. For both the CDU and the leftist Social Democratic Party (SPD), to lose so many seats despite this economic success indicates that Germans are concerned with other issues.
Immigration, and the government’s relatively liberal policy on refugees and asylum seekers, no doubt played a very important part and caused widespread resentment. This manifested itself in the success of the ultra-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). A party that had not been represented in the Bundestag before gained more than 12 percent of the popular vote, by pursuing an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform.
Add to this the malaise among younger voters, who are unhappy with German politicians’ conservative approach to investment in infrastructure in order to avoid debt, and general discontent with the establishment, and the picture of the current political situation becomes somewhat clearer.
Breaking with tradition, the SPD is refusing to even consider the possibility of joining a coalition with the CDU. This attitude might not serve Germany or Europe best, but there is a political rationale for the SPD’s stance. Seated in a Cabinet dominated by the powerful figure of Merkel left the party perceived as playing no more than second fiddle in government. Consequently, there are growing voices inside the party arguing that this has caused an erosion of its identity and policies. Martin Schultz, who became the SPD’s leader earlier this year, is heading this chorus, and attributes its poor showing in the recent elections to being part of the government but not leading it.
But he has in recent days been challenged on this, as dissenting voices within the SPD believe that Merkel’s desperation to avoid new elections has put them in a commanding position to negotiate a share in government.
Whatever the merits of Schultz’s and the SPD’s position, it has left Merkel’s CDU, the FDP and the Green Party as the only realistic partners capable of forming a new government. But the gap in their positions over an array of issues, including the economy, Europe and the environment, brought about last Sunday’s collapse of negotiations.
Despite the best efforts and pleas of senior political figures, including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Bundestag Speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble, to resurrect efforts to form a government, the most likely scenario is snap elections.
The fear is that the major beneficiary of such elections will be the ultra-right. September’s elections legitimized voting for it, and the move to the more pragmatic center-right by the CDU, under the pragmatic Merkel, created space for the xenophobic AfD to pick up votes from disenchanted right-wingers.
The stable leader of European politics is wobbling at the moment given the collapse of talks to form a new German government, but there might be a rethink among other parties about whether another round of elections would serve the country well.
For Europe, Germany’s political instability is a source of great concern, especially for French President Emmanuel Macron, who was hedging his bets on reforming the EU and taking it to the next stage of integration under the Franco-German alliance.
Without Merkel, or a weakened version of her as chancellor, this dream is in great jeopardy. It is also the case that amid tough Brexit negotiations, a political crisis in Germany has a detrimental impact on any progress toward an agreement, let alone a timely one.
The real strong and stable leader of European politics is wobbling at the moment. But there might be a rethink among other parties about whether another round of elections would serve the country well, or in any event benefit their own party.
We may yet see them return to the negotiation table and eventually form a stable coalition for the next four years. Alternatively, it will be left to the German public to express their opinion at the ballot box, in what might prove to be a watershed in their country’s post-1945 history.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.