Weekly Review

Angela Merkel’s endgame and the best option for Germany

CDU-Wahlkampf Merkel
Mulling a dignified exit. Source: DPA Picture alliance

In the late 1990s, before she became German chancellor, Angela Merkel mused in an interview how important it was for people in power to find the right time to exit. “I do not want to be a half-dead wreck when I leave politics,” she said. She had in mind Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who had in 1990 plucked her from East German obscurity, but who had also, after 16 years in office, overstayed his welcome and left with his dignity in tatters.

Now it is Ms. Merkel whose departure is drawing nigh. It has been four months since an election which she nominally won, but in which her conservative party scored its worst result since 1953. By itself, that was not a disaster for her yet. For two months, she tried to construct a novel four-way coalition with smaller parties that could have renewed her claim to tactical wizardry and a full fourth term in office. But when those negotiations collapsed in November, it was the beginning of the end of her reign, as I wrote at the time.

She has spent her time since then in exploratory negotiations — i.e., talks about talks — with the center-left Social Democrats. The parties faced each other across the table, often deep into the night, with the enthusiasm of warring spouses who have long been wanting to divorce but have been told that they cannot, for the sake of the kids. (The kids, in this analogy, are the Germans; the reprimanding judge is president Frank-Walter Steinmeier.)

Last week, Ms. Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats at last produced a document meant as the basis for official negotiations — talks that are actually talks — to form another “grand coalition”. It would be the fourth such partnership in German history, and the third since Ms. Merkel became chancellor in 2005. Once envisioned only as a backstop in national emergencies, grand coalitions — the analog of a joint Republican-Democrat ticket — have become the norm.

The current document contained nothing that was terrible, crazy, or outrageous à la Donald Trump. Nor did it offer anything bold, clear, visionary or, frankly, interesting. That is the point. Ms. Merkel has used her coalitions with the Social Democrats (SPD) to replace democracy with technocracy. Democracy, for this purpose, means vibrant debate in the Bundestag with stark alternatives. Technocracy means closed-door haggling between the coalition partners to find the lowest common denominator.

Germany’s last major reform took place just before Ms. Merkel took power (and was authored by the Social Democrats). The country owes its current success, above all its low unemployment, to that reform (which liberalized the labor market), more than to anything Ms. Merkel has done since.

In the absence of proper debate, meanwhile, the perceived lack of clear alternatives between center-left and center-right has alienated many voters. As debate is hollowed out, so is parliament, they feel. Ms. Merkel actually coined the term “alternative-less” in presenting her compromises during the euro crisis. This spawned the cynical launch of a populist right-wing party calling itself, unsubtly, the Alternative for Germany.

She is not yet a wreck, and only a quarter dead.

It would be better for Germany, therefore, if these negotiations fail. And fail they could. On Sunday, delegates at an SPD gathering must approve the preliminary document for official talks to begin. And even if talks go ahead, the slightly more than 400,000 members of the SPD must then approve the agreement by mail-in vote. Both ballots are too close to call because the party is split. Its youth organization and left wing would rather drop dead than renew the coalition.

The cadres around Ms. Merkel argue that abandoning the negotiations would plunge Germany and Europe into instability and a leadership vacuum, necessitating a snap election, which could produce the same limbo. This is specious. In fact, Germany has a much better alternative to the grand coalition: a minority government.

Postwar Germany has never had a minority government and fears it because of bad memories from the Weimar Republic. But democracies from Canada to Scandinavia and New Zealand consider minority governments business as usual. For Germany today, a government by Ms. Merkel’s conservatives alone means only that she would have to find majorities in parliament on the merits of each issue and after proper, and probably heated, debate.

This is what Germany needs, as I first argued in November. On major issues, including reform of the euro zone, Ms. Merkel would find majorities. And Germans would more readily accept the resulting policies because opposing views had a proper airing. The conspiracy theories of the Alternative for Germany, and cynicism in general, would become untenable. “The modicum of political insecurity” that a minority government entails “may well be just what the country needs to give rise to new ideas and voices, and a better future,” as Helmut Anheier, the president of Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance believes.

The relative weakness of the chancellor in this scenario is of course what Ms. Merkel abhors. But she is now weak in any scenario. (Even a grand coalition, with such cranky partners, may not last four years.) Ms. Merkel has not lost her psychological and tactical prowess. She may yet cling on to power for several more years. But she is aware that the talk inside the “cheese dome” (Berlin’s analog to Washington’s Beltway) has already changed, as the betting is on about who will succeed her.

A lesser mind than Ms. Merkel might fall prey to vanity or folly and miss these signals. Not Ms. Merkel. By all appearances, she is endowed with not only talent but also wisdom. And she has always yearned to avoid ending her career as a “half-dead wreck”. She is not yet a wreck, and only a quarter dead. There is no doubt that Angela Merkel, in her thirteenth year in power, already has a plan for her exit, and is waiting for the right time to reveal it.

To contact the author: kluth@handelsblatt.com

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