Coalition Blues

Merkel’s worst defeat

Union einigt sich auf Kompromiss im Flüchtlingsstreit
Suddenly things look bleak. Source: DPA

Christian Lindner pulled the emergency brake Sunday night. “It is better not to govern than to govern badly,” said the head of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). His comments ended the exploratory talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party CSU, and the Green Party. Efforts have fallen apart to form a “Jamaica” coalition, thus nicknamed because party colors match the flag of the Caribbean nation. Europe’s largest economy has been plunged into a political crisis overnight.

It’s wrong to only blame the FDP leader and brand him a self-serving populist. All four parties are equally responsible for the fact that in four weeks they couldn’t develop a sound exploratory document and trust each other. The whole way through, there was no indication those leading the negotiations were seriously interested in a shared government. The parties consistently placed their own political interests above the common cause. Of course, it would have been desirable for the parties involved to fight to the end to achieve a common vision for a new government. But party leaders and negotiators alike made this impossible.

Sure, discussions about content are part of political culture. And in recent years, we would like to have seen more intense debates on controversial issues such as refugee policy or the energy transition. But the personal hostilities, ongoing leaks and ideological deadlocks were unprecedented. In the end, they had reached a level where it seemed hard to imagine the political opponents could ever become a functioning team.

Political disenchantment is the only winner of the failed talks.

Against this backdrop, the termination of the exploratory talks seems inevitable. Even if Ms. Merkel and the others had made a coalition agreement, it still wouldn’t be clear whether the party base would approve after this disastrous prelude. Who in their right mind would endorse a program its negotiators can’t even defend?

Disappointingly, the party negotiators failed to live up to their political responsibilities. It is one thing that the political protagonists, despite all the differences of opinion, have failed to find common ground, both personally and in policy terms. What’s worse, however, is the whole mess has caused even more people to lose confidence in politics. The only real outcome of the talks is political disenchantment.

The CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens have missed what may have been an historic opportunity to form a modern government able to provide answers to the most pressing questions of our time, spread a spirit of optimism and take away people’s fears of globalization and digitalization. The first Jamaica coalition at the national level could have changed Germany in a positive way.

Fortsetzung der Sondierungsgespräche
All those all-nighters for naught. Source: DPA

The failure of the talks is a serious defeat for Angela Merkel, marking a low point in the longstanding chancellor’s political career. Granted, the end of Jamaica does not necessarily mean the end of Ms. Merkel as chancellor or as head of the CDU. Still, she now cuts a significantly weakened figure.

It is difficult to understand an accomplished stateswoman like Ms. Merkel, who can hold her own with autocrats like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was unable (or unwilling) to agree on a government program with Mr. Lindner, CSU leader Horst Seehofer and Green Party co-chairman Cem Özdemir. As impressive as Ms. Merkel’s efforts in foreign policy have been for the euro, the climate, the trans-Atlantic relationship and, not least, the refugees, her domestic record has been slim. The CDU/CSU’s historically poor showing in Germany’s federal election two months ago was already the expression of a disappointed citizenry, which senses that the chancellor is not tackling its problems with the same energy and conviction she applies in saving the world. Instead of recognizing the election result as a warning signal from disappointed citizens, Ms. Merkel merely responded with the aloof statement: “I don’t see what we should have done differently.”

Perhaps the chancellor will change her attitude after the collapse of the coalition talks. One can only hope that she does. Without a different policy, or a different political style, Ms. Merkel will have trouble finding a partner to form a government coalition. This, at least, is what the Social Democrats will be demanding if they agree to exploratory talks with the CDU/CSU after all.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is right when he warns that all sides must be willing to talk if they hope to form a government. New elections would be the worst possible option. They would only benefit two groups of voters: the far-right Alternative for Democracy (AfD) and non-voters. It would become even more difficult to form a stable government that sets the course for the future. No one in Berlin should be so reckless as to allow such a situation to develop.

To reach the author: afhueppe@handelsblatt.com

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