Body language told the whole story as three tired party leaders Monday signed the coalition agreement to end nearly six months of political limbo in Germany. Droopy eyes and a presentation bordering on listless marked the end of a marathon process to negotiate the accord and win approval from party members. The signing paves the way for Angela Merkel to be elected Wednesday to her fourth term as chancellor.
Opposition politician Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party, criticized the coalition pact as already obsolete. It takes no account of urgent issues like a potential trade war with the United States, the European Central Bank’s shift to a tighter monetary policy, or France’s efforts to become more competitive, Mr. Lindner charged.
Nor was he alone in branding the agreement between Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic alliance and the Social Democrats at best a preservation of the status quo and not a bold new step toward the future. The Greens environmentalist party, also in opposition to the grand coalition, criticized the partners for abandoning Germany’s climate goals. “That is this ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude in dealing with difficult decisions,” party leader Robert Habeck said.
Getting to a new coalition government eases full-scale political paralysis, but may not lift the political malaise.
Much was left vague in the accord and some concrete commitments have met with skepticism. The pact pledges billions to education and digital infrastructure, but previous governments have as well, even as whole swaths of the country lack high-speed internet and dangerously dilapidated school buildings are closed.
Even as Ms. Merkel appeared together with Horst Seehofer, head of the Bavarian wing of her alliance, and acting Social Democratic (SPD) chair Olaf Scholz, the coalition partners were jostling over the assignments of parliamentary state secretaries – lawmakers who serve as deputies and liaisons to the cabinet members. It was more every man and woman for themselves than working together to implement policy.
It is, in fact, an uneasy coalition, achieving consensus only through focusing on a minimal number of vague commitments and a large dose of marginal increases in select social benefits. Ms. Merkel had no say over the choice of her top two cabinet ministers, both from the SPD. Mr. Scholz will be deputy chancellor and finance minister and former justice minister Heiko Maas will be the new foreign minister. Ms. Merkel had to cede six of 15 cabinet posts to the SPD despite their poor results, as well as three to the Bavarian party.
A substantial minority of SPD members, fully one-third, voted against a new grand coalition amid crumbling support for Germany’s main center-left party. The party won only 20.5 percent of the vote in the September 24 election, its worst postwar result, and slipped a further five points since then before regaining some ground in a recent poll.
The Bavarian Christian Social Union, meanwhile, which also posted its worst postwar result, forced Mr. Seehofer to quit his post as state prime minister in favor of his new job as interior minister in Berlin so that the party could face state elections this fall under a new standard-bearer.
Getting to a new coalition government eases full-scale political paralysis, but may not lift the political malaise that resulted in both mainstream parties losing substantial support. Ms. Merkel’s personal popularity has plummeted and a recent poll indicated more than half of German voters doubt she can hang onto office for the full four-year term.
On Monday, Ms. Merkel said she presumes the government, including herself at the head, will last the full four years. But a half year has already been spent wrangling a new coalition and Christian Democrats will be looking for a new face to lead the party into the 2021 election. Many took last month’s appointment of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as party general secretary as a sign that Ms. Merkel would abdicate in favor of an anointed successor.
Mr. Scholz said a central focus of the new government will be further development of the European Union. He and Ms. Merkel will go to Paris ahead of the EU summit next week to discuss reform proposals with French President Emmanuel Macron. After months of paralysis, Germany has a new coalition ready to take office, but there’s no guarantee they will be speaking with one voice.
Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. Handelsblatt reporters Daniel Delhaes and Jan Hildebrand contributed to this article. To contact the author: email@example.com.