merger casualties

Berlin's beleaguered politicians must come up with coalition answers

Schulz, coalition, SPD
Machiavelli would have some tips. Source: AP

Nobody wants to be pitied and especially not politicians.

Niccolò Machiavelli, still loved by the power-hungry, wondered back in the Medici era whether it was better to “be loved than feared, or vice versa.” Both, he decided.

Unfortunately though that’s far from the way people see Germany’s struggling leaders. Indeed, it’s the opposite for Martin Schulz, who heads the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Neither loved nor feared, at best, some of his party members may pity him. He got a mere minute of applause as he tried to rally his divided party with a 90-minute speech.

That’s bad news for Mr. Schulz who may be no rock star but compare that to the kind of lengthy ovations seen by the former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. The painful truth is that the SPD is not entering into coalition talks because of Martin Schulz, but in spite of him and because party leaders want to govern instead of being in opposition.

For Mr. Schulz, it wouldn’t be surprising if the SPD’s Andrea Nahles were to become party leader soon.

But he’s not the only one with problems.

The Christian Social Union (CSU) ousted its chairman shortly after the elections. Now, Horst Seehofer will end his political career by moving to Berlin after the talks are done to serve as a cabinet minister, yielding the office of Bavarian governor to his arch rival Markus Söder. How long can Mr. Seehofer hold on as party leader will depend on the way Bavaria’s state elections go this fall.

And can Chancellor Angela Merkel make it? That’s the question making the rounds in the Christian Democratic Union which is divided over whether to continue supporting its chairwoman and chancellor, or whether to start talking about her successor.

The answer depends on whether the grand coalition materializes. That would be good news for Ms. Merkel, often seen as a winner of elections, helping to cement Germany’s strong position in Europe and the world. Besides, she has helped the CDU and CSU to regain power in some states – not self-evident after twelve years of chancellorship.

Mr. Schulz, Mr. Seehofer and Ms. Merkel are all losers of September's elections.

But if the talks fail, her power will ebb as long as there’s uncertainty about how the country should be governed.

Mr. Schulz, Mr. Seehofer and Ms. Merkel are all losers of September’s elections and their government won’t be worthy of its “grand coalition” title. Now, they must forge a pact to ensure their political survival. They should remember that during the election campaign, they offered no answers to questions that have strengthened far-right parties: many people feel left behind. How will a new coalition going to address that? What about people’s fears of the future, loss of jobs or of migration and refugees?

Never mind the economic data. These social questions are the ones that really count. The SPD might be talking about uniform insurance, employment contracts or family reunification.

The real issues the new coalition must address are what to do as man and machine grow together, how globalization will advance and how to live.

If the CDU/CSU and the SPD don’t do this, they will lose credibility that used to guarantee them 30 or 40 percent of voters. They need to trust people. If they don’t, those proud big-tent parties will be swept away over time, as they keep losing votes and struggle to form coalitions. No sympathy here.

To contact the author: delhaes@handelsblatt.com

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