The Dispiriting Prospect of a New Grand Coalition
It wasn't all that long ago that Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz were casting aspersions at one another. The chancellor led a "scandalous campaign," raged Schulz, the Social Democratic (SPD) chancellor candidate and party head. The SPD, countered the chancellor, "isn't capable of being in government."
On Thursday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier received the two party leaders for a long discussion, but even in the days leading up to that meeting, it had become clear that the two were eagerly burying the hatchet to lay the groundwork for a possible coalition. Schulz and Merkel, together with Horst Seehofer, who leads the Bavarian conservatives, now intend to explore the possibility of slapping together another governing coalition - the same "grand coalition" that voters so clearly rejected in the general election in late September.
As a group, Germans are thought to value political stability. But a repeat of the SPD-conservative coalition is the kind of stability that wouldn't be good for the country. The last four years have shown that a grand coalition is a static alliance, one that is good at spending money but not as adept at moving projects forward - aside from the project of right-wing populism, of course.
Deputy SPD head Olaf Scholz said recently that a rebirth of the grand coalition would "have negative consequences for our democracy." It would also mean that the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) would be the strongest party in opposition. That means it would always have the privilege in parliament of delivering the first rebuttal to Merkel's speeches.
Nevertheless, for the leaders of the parties involved, a grand coalition isn't completely unattractive. For Merkel, it represents the best opportunity to secure her power, a motive that has long been important to her. And SPD head Martin Schulz already seems to be practicing the arguments he hopes to use at next week's party congress to convince unwilling delegates of the utility of another alliance with Merkel's conservatives.
First off, he said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL, the SPD has "always born responsibility for the common welfare." Secondly, issues such as old-age care, health care and education are projects that could "awaken Germany out of its torpor." And thirdly, he says, there are also reasonable politicians on the center-right.
The goal, then, is that of a political alliance matching Merkel, Schulz and Seehofer, a list of names that symbolizes such a coalition's biggest weakness. It would be a trio from the stone age of German politics - a paleo-coalition. All three led their parties to historically poor results in the parliamentary elections on September 24. All three have powerful opponents in their own party. And all three have lost significant amounts of power in recent weeks.
More than anything, though, the triumvirate of the walking wounded has no idea how to design their alliance of convenience such that it is actually advantageous to all. In tax and social welfare policy, the parties are likely to come up with the kind of lazy compromises that make it even more difficult to determine what the parties stand for and which don't actually help the country. When it comes to the vital issue of climate protection, neither the SPD nor the conservatives are particularly passionate about it. And on Europe, an issue which both Merkel and Schulz would like to make the focus of any alliance, there are more open questions than either of them are willing to admit.
There is great danger that a relaunch of the grand coalition could accelerate the attenuation of Germany's two big-tent parties, similar to what has happened in the last several years in Austria. There, grand coalitions became the rule rather than the exception, and voter support for the parties involved plunged from election to election. Now, the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria will soon be in government.
For quite some time, it looked as though Merkel's presidential style of leadership might prevent the erosion of the political center here in Germany. Now, though, the chancellor's lack of a clear profile or political direction is no longer seen as a solution. It is seen as the problem - even within her own party, the Christian Democrats (CDU).
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The lecture held by one-time CDU bigwig Friedrich Merz recently at a meeting of the party's economic council in Düsseldorf bore the title: "USA and Europe - Quo Vadis?" But Merz, who was once the party's floor leader in German parliament, had a different message for his party. "The strategy of putting as many opposing voters to sleep is surely now passé," he said, referring to Merkel's preferred campaign style of taking controversy out of political campaigns. Merz went on to say that if there were new elections, the party would have to "run a completely different kind of race."
Merz didn't have to mention the chancellor by name, but everybody in the audience knew that Merkel was the target of his criticism. And they were happy to hear it. One day earlier, members of the economic council had made it clear during a closed-door meeting what they thought of the chancellor. When the group's general secretary, Wolfgang Steiger, delivered a few comments about the policy changes within the CDU, a member of the audience stood up and said: "You forgot one thing: personnel changes." It was clear that he was referring to party chair Merkel - and the audience erupted in loud applause. In an effort to prevent the mood from getting out of hand, Steiger quickly reminded the room that "we are the economic council, not the personnel council."
A Monument to Stubbornness
The end of an era is often excruciating, and Germany's postwar history is full of chancellors who missed their opportunity to bow out gracefully. Konrad Adenauer had reached the biblical age of 87 before he finally handed the reins of power to his hated party ally Ludwig Erhard. Helmut Kohl, meanwhile, was little more than a monument to his own stubbornness after 16 years in the Chancellery.
Merkel has always insisted that she wanted full control over the end her political career - and indeed, she has never been beset by the kind of political hubris of someone like, say, Edmund Stoiber, the former governor of Bavaria who saw his political end not as a democratic necessity, but as an attack by political dilettantes. But when Merkel decided last November to once again run for re-election, she fell victim to the dreadful question that ultimately confronts everyone who has long been on top: Who else can do the job?
Sure, the situation in the world had become complicated. There was Brexit, there was Trump, there was the refugee question - all reasons that Merkel pointed to in justifying her decision to run. But she didn't recognize that she, herself, had become a divisive figure for many conservative voters.
Now, though, the country finds itself faced with a renewal of the grand coalition. The smallest problem facing Merkel are the industrial associations that want to do all they can to prevent a grand coalition and would even prefer a minority government over another alliance with the Social Democrats. A minority government "would be much more tolerable to the German economy than a partnership with the SPD, whose understanding of the social welfare state seems to come from the 19th century," says a leading functionary in Germany's employer association.
Much more dangerous for Merkel are the voices advocating for a minority government as a way to loosen her hold on power. Jens Spahn, the powerful leader of the CDU's conservative wing, got started last Sunday during a meeting of the party's leadership committee. "We can't have a grand coalition at any price," he said. "We should at least take one serious look at the idea of a minority government."
Spahn knows full well that a minority government is the last thing Merkel wants, and her reaction was predictably acerbic. "Nobody wants a coalition at any price," she said, adding that she would like the party to focus on ensuring that that talks with the SPD are successful. Merkel's loyal floor leader, Volker Kauder, echoed his boss, saying Germany needed a stable government. Plus, he said, you can't offer the SPD coalition talks while at the same time indicating that you'd be happy to govern without them. That, Kauder said, isn't acceptable.
Erosion of Merkel's Power
But all the appeals did little to help, yet another indication that Merkel is losing authority. "Given that the negotiations with the SPD are likely to be difficult and protracted, we of course won't lose sight of the option of a minority government," said Günter Krings, head of the influential group of CDU parliamentarians from North Rhine-Westphalia. The CDU's economic council even passed a formal resolution on Thursday in opposition to a grand coalition.
The erosion of Merkel's power is becoming more obvious by the day. On Monday, Germany's representative on the relevant European Union committee voted in favor of extending the license to sell the controversial herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) in the EU for another five years. "I made the decision right here at this table," said German Agricultural Minister Christian Schmidt in his Berlin office two days later, banging the palm of his hand down on the tabletop. He knew full well that his vote was contrary to the wishes of Merkel. Peter Altmaier, Merkel's chief of staff, had told him that he could only vote in favor of extending the license if Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, of the SPD, agreed.
But Schmidt didn't care. His ministry counted up 288 pages of media reports resulting from Schmidt's decision. "You don't get that very often," he said, grinning. He seemed extremely satisfied with himself.
Merkel has spoken with him about the decision twice. The first time was on Monday evening, shortly after the vote, and the tone of their chat was businesslike, Schmidt says. The second time was on Tuesday, after the SPD had spent the preceding day complaining bitterly of the conservatives' breach of trust, and Merkel was much angrier. Even French President Emmanuel Macron was angry about the German vote.
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Schmidt, though, is certain that the negotiations over a new grand coalition won't fail because of his vote on the glyphosate issue. And if it does, of course, it's Merkel's problem, not his.
Merkel intends to fight for the coalition with the SPD with everything she's got. As head of a minority government, after all, her days would be numbered. The chancellor's one-time rival Roland Koch basically said as much in a recent op-ed for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which he described the advantages of governing without a majority. Unfortunately, he allowed, it could force Merkel to submit to a confidence vote in spring 2019. Koch's people insist that he meant the essay merely as encouragement in these difficult days.
Perhaps. But few missed the fact that the op-ed appeared in exactly the same newspaper in which Merkel famously broke with Helmut Kohl almost exactly 18 years ago, at a time when he was embroiled in the party donation scandal. On Dec. 22, 1999, she wrote: "The party needs to learn to walk on its own, it must have confidence to engage in future battle with its political adversaries without its old warhorse, as Helmut Kohl has often called himself." There are many who now think the same about Angela Merkel.
On Wednesday evening in the small town of Gifhorn, just east of Hannover, the local SPD chapter had gathered for a discussion with Hubertus Heil, the party's outgoing general secretary. White wine and beer was being served, a Christmas tree stood in the corner. Heil had come to speak with the 50 party members present about the situation following the collapse of Merkel's initial round of coalition talks with the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens. What options are available to the SPD?