Governing Germany

Merkel talks with the SPD about an unpopular coalition

Wahlkampf CDU – mit Kanzlerin Angela Merkel
Happily moving left? Source: DPA

From the outside, it seems like the kind of politics Germany loves: long and drawn-out with plenty of room for somber discussions. But even Germans are tiring of a Berlin that has not been able to form a new government since September’s federal election. On Sunday, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is ruling with a caretaker government, will begin a round of talks to possibly form a government between her conservative bloc and the center-left Social Democrats, or SPD, led by failed chancellor candidate Martin Schulz.

Ideally the talks will lead to a coalition of the country’s biggest parties, known as a “Grand Coalition,” which ruled up until September and during eight of the chancellor’s 12 years atop Europe’s most powerful government. It’s a coalition that Mr. Schulz loudly rejected after September’s elections, and that only 45 percent of German voters expressed support for in a recent poll by public broadcaster ARD.

“Instead of vitality and change, with this constellation many see a continuation of what got us here and stagnation at a high level,” Kurt Biedenkopf wrote in Handelsblatt. Mr. Biedenkopf is a former prime minister of the state of Saxony and was once a high-level official in Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.

Mr. Biedenkopf was expressing the broader resignation felt by many voters who hoped September’s elections would lead to a governmental reboot. The many challenges start with sorting out the immigration legacy left by Chancellor Merkel’s brief open-door policy, while simultaneously readying the country for its digital future by, among other things, financing an upgrade of its Internet infrastructure, which in turn could better help Germany do business.

Germany Politics
Martin Schulz is talking and Chancellor Merkel is listening. Source: AP

Now the country is steeling for more of the same when a coalition is finally formed, hopefully by Easter but possibly later. And in the meantime, Chancellor Merkel’s caretaker bureaucrats can do little more than perform the day-to-day business of running the country. The stagnation is heightening concerns that corporate Germany has become complacent as key industries, such as cars and energy, change permanently. On foreign policy, the fear is that Berlin is absent when the world could use a German voice on both Iran and North Korea. Not to mention the domestic and European reforms sought by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Ms. Merkel’s failure to form what is likely her last government is already placing pressure on the once-untouchable chancellor, lowering her approval rating in the ARD poll from 61 percent in September to 53 percent in January. It is also luring her potential successors evermore into German media, ratcheting up the urgency to book a high-profile success.

There is also fear that in Ms. Merkel’s desperation to form a coalition and win back favor, she may compromise too much. The left-leaning SPD, which has promised to put any coalition deal to a vote among its members, has an interest in pushing hard for its own priorities. Ms. Merkel is already expected to cave to SPD demands for increasing taxes on the wealthy and equalizing the contribution employers and employees make to health insurance – employees currently pay a larger share.

Most alarmingly, the Grand Coalition is expected to make only a few changes to immigration policy, which was devised by the previous Grand Coalition, despite it being the biggest concern among voters. “Every month about 15,000 immigrants currently come to us, of whom we largely have no idea who they are and if they have a criminal or terrorist background,” said August Hanning, who led Germany’s spy shop, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, from 1998 to 2005. Adding to tensions is a study published this week showing that immigrants from northern Africa are largely responsible for an increase in violent crime observed across Saxony, and that reuniting migrants with their families has a calming effect – a current talking point among politicians.

Should the latest attempt to form a government fail, 54 percent of voters would like the chance to vote again, while 42 percent would prefer Ms. Merkel just get on with it in a minority government, forming coalitions ad hoc as issues arise. But that presents other risks, as noted recently by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel: “The biggest danger for us politicians is if people notice that it could all keep on going without us. It’s a real risk. In Belgium, things went very well for two years without a government.” Maybe that’s the type of politics Germany could really love.

Andrew Bulkeley is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the author: a.bulkeley@handelsblattgroup.de

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