Time for Action in Testy Coalition

Party leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Horst Seehofer (L) of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and Sigmar Gabriel of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) arrive for the coalition government agreement signing ceremony in Berlin December 16, 2013. Germany's Social Democrats voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining a "grand coalition" with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives on Saturday, clearing the way for a new right-left government that will take office on Tuesday. Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), won the September 22 election but fell short of a majority. They needed a partner and spent much of the last three months negotiating a coalition deal with the arch rival SPD, which came a distant second. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX16KW1
Chancellor Angela Merkel flanked by CSU leader Horst Seehofer and SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Key new initiatives are being delayed by inter-party conflict, including a ruling on pensions, tax reforms and work regulations.

  • Facts


    • A rift over immigration policy has divided the center-right Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union.
    • The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany is at 14 percent in the most recent poll.
    • The center-left Social Democrats, the junior party in the right-left coalition, saw its support dwindle to just 21 percent.
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There were times in Germany when coalition partners disparaged each other as “swine” and “nut cases.” That was back in 2010 when the Bavarian-based conservative Christian Social Union and liberal Free Democrats cursed each other roundly.

But now insults are flying again in a rift over immigration policy, which has divided the center-right Christian Democrats and their Bavarian allies in the Christian Social Union.

CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who is especially critical of the Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policies, has accused the government of being “high-handed” and running an “unjust regime.” Mr. Seehofer was specifically targeting Thomas de Maizière, the Christian Democratic interior minister who this week announced that border controls would probably be lifted next month if the number of refugees arriving in Germany remained low.

“ Just because the CSU can’t get its way on the refugee policy, it is blocking everything it can.”

Katarina Barley, SPD General Secretary

Ahead of a critical government summit next week, the three coalition party leaders met on Thursday in Berlin for the first time since the successes of the far-right Alternative for Germany in recent state elections.

The two conservative party leaders, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer, met first alone for two and half hours. They were then joined in the chancellery by Sigmar Gabriel, head of the center-left Social Democrats, the junior party in the governing coalition.

The SPD signaled afterwards that it had been a constructive meeting, and that party leaders had agreed that all controversial issues should be settled by the parliament’s summer break.

But they said it comes down to whether the Christian Social Union would stick to the agreement. Deputy SPD leader Ralf Stegner called the Bavarians “troublemakers,” who were determined not to give up room right of center to the upstart AfD.

Party Popularity-01 April 2016


“The right-wing populists only have a chance if governments don’t govern properly,” said Mr. Stegner.

The situation is tricky, as shown by the latest Deutschlandtrend political opinion poll, conducted by infratest dimap. According to its findings, the CDU/CSU dropped two percentage points to 34 percent. The SPD also declined two points to 21 percent, their lowest rating ever, while the AfD gained three to reach 14 percent. The Green Party ticked up three points to 13 percent, the far-left Left Party fell two to 7 percent and the FDP gained a point to reach 7 percent also.

Social Democrats complain that next week’s coalition summit might be overshadowed by “internal disputes” about refugees within the Christian Democratic parties. “The CDU and CSU are always at each other’s throats,” said one SPD official.

Mr. Seehofer is still calling for a change of direction on immigration while other projects suffer as a result. Among initiatives being held up are pensions based on a lifetime’s work, inheritance tax reforms and new regulations governing temporary work and employment contracts.

“Large sections of the CDU/CSU are criticizing solidarity and slowing down the introduction of fair pensions based on a lifetime’s work for low earners,” the SPD said.

“Decisions have to be made based on what was agreed, so the SPD has a good hand,” Mr. Stegner told Handelsblatt. “At the end of the day, Ms. Merkel cannot carry on electioneering for a year and a half.”  The next federal elections are scheduled to take place in September or October of 2017.

SPD General Secretary Katarina Barley also voiced the party’s frustrations: “Just because the CSU can’t get its way on the refugee policy, it is blocking everything it can.”

On Sunday the CDU/CSU will meet to try and reach agreement on strategy for next week’s coalition summit, which will also be attended by party general secretaries and parliamentary group leaders.

Apart from Ms. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer, the CDU/CSU mini-summit on Sunday will be attended by other important party members. They include the CDU parliamentary leader Volker Kauder, CSU regional party leader Gerda Hasselfeldt, head of the chancellery Peter Altmaier, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, as well as Mr. de Maizière, the interior minister.

The big bone of contention is still the inheritance tax. A new law is due on July 1, according to a federal constitutional court ruling.

CDU sources say the Social Democrats have agreed to future regulations on inheritance tax and the parliamentary parties have agreed on a compromise. But Mr. Seehofer subsequently withdrew his support.

There is pressure to reach an agreement because the CSU, in particular, wants to win back middle-class protest voters by showing they can act like a governing party. At least that is how it wants to be seen up until the next state elections in September, before the federal election campaign begins in earnest.

The chancellor’s CDU also have important projects they want to see decided “before the summer break,” said party general secretary, Peter Tauber. They include, for example, an integration law and subsidies for electromobility.

Heike Anger and Daniel Delhaes are cover party politics from Berlin for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors:,



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