coalition talks

Merkel’s Jamaican Dilemma

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Gosh, it's heating up here. Source: Vecteezy

Germany, unlike the United States and some other democracies, typically has coalition governments, and forming them is seldom easy. But the results of Sunday’s federal election have dealt Angela Merkel a particularly tough hand. The desired coalition is dubbed “Jamaica” because the black, yellow and green of the Caribbean island’s flag represent those of the three parties that can form the only plausible combination with a majority of seats in parliament. These are the chancellor’s conservative bloc of CDU and CSU (black), the pro-business Free Democrats (yellow), and the environmentalist Greens.

At the national level, this motley combination has never been tried before. And for good reason: The Christian Social Union (CSU), a Bavarian party that is allied to Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, loathes the leftist Greens. So do the pro-market Free Democrats. On a range of issues – from stabilizing the euro zone to phasing out diesel engines and coal-fired power plants and dealing with refugees – the parties have not only different but “diametrically opposed positions,” as Katrin Göring-Eckardt, a leader of the Greens, puts it.

For now, the parties are playing hard to get. “We won’t allow ourselves to be forced into a government coalition,” said Christian Lindner, the young, charismatic head of the Free Democrats who resuscitated the party after it crashed in the 2013 election. Speaking for the Greens, Cem Özdemir, Ms. Göring-Eckardt’s co-leader, also said he saw no “necessity” to form a Jamaica coalition.

But despite this tactical banter, the Jamaica parties do overlap on some policies, and they’ve shown they can work together at the regional level. Since June, a Jamaica coalition led by the Christian Democrats (CDU) has ruled the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. In another state, wealthy Baden-Württemberg in the south-west, the Greens are the senior partner in a harmonious coalition with the Christian Democrats.

Another fight awaits in policy toward the European Union (EU) and the euro zone.

But there’s no denying the differences. Even the chancellor’s conservatives within their own bloc are expected to squabble, especially over refugee policy. Horst Seehofer, the CSU party chairman, warned that his support of the “sister party” could no longer be taken for granted, unless Ms. Merkel agreed to specific limits on immigration and the number of future refugees. “There is an open flank on our right and we have to close this flank with a clear position and clear limits,” he said.

For months, Mr. Seehofer, who is also the premier of Bavaria, has been demanding an explicit commitment to a cap of no more than 200,000 refugees per year – a limit that Ms. Merkel has rejected as unconstitutional. After the CSU’s worst showing since 1949, the Bavarian leader is under pressure. His response will be to harden his stance.

The Greens, meanwhile, have energy and climate policy in their DNA. They will insist on a concrete timetable for shutting down coal-fired power stations by 2030, and taking the 20 dirtiest plants off the grid immediately. “There is no way around an exit from coal,” said Green parliamentarian Annalena Baerbock.  The Greens will also demand that the new government crack down on carmakers by pushing them to move faster from diesel engines to electric motors.

Another fight awaits in policy toward the European Union (EU) and the euro zone. Since the French election earlier this year, Ms. Merkel had been hoping to support President Emmanuel Macron in reforming the EU. On September 26, Mr. Macron spelled out what he envisions in this regard, with a long list of ideas including a European finance minister and budget. But the Free Democrats oppose deeper fiscal integration of this sort, fearing a slide into a “transfer union.” Mr. Lindner has described a euro-zone budget as “red line.”

25 Possible Coalitions-01

The Greens are on the exact opposite side. They demanding more German support for other euro-zone countries and reject Ms. Merkel’s approach throughout the euro crisis of giving assistance only in return for “austerity” (meaning fiscal cuts).

When it comes to security policy, the “Jamaicans” are likely to agree on the need for more police officers on the streets. But when it comes to boosting the powers of the security services, they will clash. The Free Democrats see themselves as guardians of data privacy, and oppose making German telecom firms keep telephone and Internet data to fight crime. They’re also against a system that would automatically recognize the license plates on cars. The Bavarian CSU, by contrast, will demand more police powers, including more video cameras in public areas.

Then there is refugee policy. On one side is the CSU with a hardline stance of limiting numbers.  On the other are the Greens with their demand of a continued “welcome culture”. Ms. Merkel is somewhere in the middle. While the conservatives and the Free Democrats both want to accelerate the deportation of rejected applicants for asylum, the Greens decry such “deportation populism.”

On pensions, too, the parties are far apart. This is a major issue, given Germany’s ageing population. The Greens and some of the conservatives in the CDU and CSU want to be generous in paying pensions to the elderly. The Free Democrats want to raise the pension age and trim payouts to keep the system affordable for younger contributors.

At least the Free Democrats and Greens are closer together when it comes to immigration, which is separate from refugee policy. Both parties support a points-based system, similar to Canada’s, to allow qualified foreign workers to move to Germany. The two parties also agree on the need to reform the education system and to invest in fiber-optic cables for faster internet nationwide.

Compromise may also be possible on taxation. The public purses are in surplus, and both the CDU and the FDP have promised tax cuts. The Greens, however, campaigned for higher taxes on the rich. But their tax policy is vague, and the party may be prepared to yield here for concessions elsewhere.

Given this hairball of problems, negotiations could last for the rest of the year. They could even fail. In that case, Ms. Merkel would have to attempt a minority government, which post-war Germany has never had. The alternative is new elections, which she considers the worst outcome. “I advise everyone – and the other parties know this – to accept the vote as it is,” she said on Monday. Anything else, she added, would show “disregard for the electorate.”

Handelsblatt editors Daniel Delhaes, Donata Riedel and Klaus Strattmann as well as Handelsblatt senior editor John Blau collaborated on this story. To contact the author:

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