Deadlock, dilemma – disaster?

By Tobias Wedel

After the breakdown of the pre-negotiation talks for Angela Merkel’s fourth coalition, there is no government majority in sight for the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. The country faces turbulent times ahead, which may have a significant impact on the future of Europe for decades to come. It seems that the problems of many European countries and other parts of the western world have finally manifested in Germany, Europe’s perceived bastion of stability: polarization, a declining political centre and the rise of right-wing populists. This article is an attempt to provide a broader perspective on causes and possible effects of the current political deadlock.

Germany’s post-war political system is first and foremost aimed at preventing the abuse of power in general and a dictatorship in particular. A complicated intertwinement rather than a separation of powers, together with the concept of defensive democracy – no constitutional protection for the enemies of the constitution – has guaranteed stability for decades and has been admired and sometimes even adopted all around the world. The equally complicated electoral system reconciles proportionality with local representation and counteracts parliament fragmentation through a 5% threshold.

This system worked especially well with the traditional political spectrum of only three parties, the conservatives, the social democrats and the liberals. But ever since the 1980s, the political landscape has been fragmenting with the permanent presence of the greens and later post-GDR socialists together with a far-left splinter group of the social democrats in parliament. This September, the transformation of the political spectrum culminated in the entry of a far-right extremist party as third-largest faction.

Many observers partly attribute this last change to incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel’s consensus-seeking leadership style. In her twelve years as chancellor, she hardly had any overarching vision for the future, but administered the state on a day-to-day basis, adjusting her policies according to polls. This brought her ever closer to social democratic positions, such as the gradual abolition of nuclear energy. Similarly, she claimed that her decisions in the financial-, economic- and euro-crises were “without any alternative”, thus discouraging democratic discourse. This lack of discussion can be felt in other areas of social life as well: the generation whose political socialization has taken place during Merkel’s three terms in office has even been labelled “Generation Merkel”, as many young people no longer have a clear standpoint on many issues. This has led to a culture of apathy – they do not support or challenge opinions, but merely find them interesting.

As long as Merkel was able to transform her anti-controversial leadership and the slight shift to the left into electoral successes with the social democrats declining, conservative hardliners within and outside her party quietly accepted this strategy. But when Merkel took an important decision out of recognizable conviction for the first time in 2015 with a temporally generous asylum policy, the hardliners struck back. The fact that she gradually transformed her policy into a more restrictive one – again, according to polls – could not stop the fast emergence of a far-right movement. More than a practical concern, Merkel’s refugee policies became mere pretext and symbol for the far-right’s opposition to her rule.

The “Generation Merkel” has led to a culture of apathy – they do not support or challenge opinions, but merely find them interesting.

As there is no left-wing majority and all other parties announced not to cooperate with the new far-right party, no coalition can be formed without the conservatives, led by Angela Merkel. In addition to that, a grand coalition composed of the two biggest parties is seen as a last resort solution in Germany, because it leads to a weak opposition and potential political apathy by conveying the perception that there are no significant differences between the major parties. Indeed, the Austrian example is seen as negative in Germany, as frequent grand coalitions there have facilitated the rise of a far-right populist party, which will probably enter a coalition following this year’s elections.

With all those restrictions, the only politically feasible alliance was a so-called Jamaica-coalition composed of conservatives, liberals and greens. The pre-negotiation talks for this historically unique alliance with only two precedents on state level – out of which one fell apart after not even three years – had been going on for weeks, when the leader of the liberals, Christian Lindner, announced his party’s withdrawal. What had happened?

As Angela Merkel’s conservative union encompasses two parties, one of them being tendentially more right-leaning and geographically restricted to Bavaria, the talks were the first pre-negotiations between four such different parties in post-war history. In particular, differences between the greens and the conservative hardliners in terms of migration policies, and conflicts about environmental protection between the greens and the business-friendly liberals have hampered compromise. Although considerable progress had been made, the Bavarian conservatives, who had experienced unprecedented losses in the election, and especially the liberals, who had already lost all their seats in parliament after their last coalition with Merkel, were reluctant to embark on the coalition. These concerns together with political conflicts and tactical considerations were strong enough for the liberals to end the talks.

This means that Angela Merkel and her grand-coalition cabinet stay in office until a chancellor will have sworn his or her oath. As a revival of the Jamaica-coalition is unlikely, three scenarios are possible right now:

1. Another grand coalition: After the lost election, the social democrats immediately excluded this option in order to ensure credible competition between the two major parties possible again after two grand coalitions in only three electoral terms. Knowing that each government they have formed with Merkel so far severely weakened them, they relied on a four-party coalition, their opposition to which would facilitate a comeback in four years time. Since the breakdown of the talks, the conservatives have tried to convince the social democrats and some of them have already signalled willingness to compromise. The outcome will very much depend on the result of conflicts within the party: Its current leader, the former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is rather against a coalition, while others see a chance for their party in dictating the conditions for cooperation – possibly including the resignation of Angela Merkel. If we assume that Austrian dynamics can also be applied in Germany, this coalition would grant short-term stability, but could severely harm German democracy in the long run and give again rise to the far-right extremists.

If the social democrats do not enter another government, president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, usually a representative than political figure, would have to choose between the following options:

2. A minority government: If the president proposes a chancellor, there will be one. Even if the candidate does not have his or her own majority, in the third round the plurality of votes in parliament is sufficient. This solution would be a novelty in German politics, but there have been positive examples in Scandinavia. The conservatives could form a coalition with either the greens or the liberals and organize new majorities in parliament every single time they want to pass a bill. This process could encourage debate and thus revive parliamentary culture after the discourse-paralysing years of the grand coalition. This might raise concerns over whether instability is beneficial at present, but the chancellor could always end this experiment in case of a political deadlock by asking parliament for a strategic vote of (no-)confidence.

3. Snap elections: The president might also decide to dissolve parliament and call for another general election. The question of which parties would profit depends on several factors. For the Jamaica-parties, it hinges on their ability to explain and promote their behaviour during the pre-negotiation talks. In the case of the social democrats, it depends on a credible candidate for Chancellor, although a social democrats-led left-wing government seems unlikely. Many observers also warn against a further strengthening of the far-right populists in a potential snap election. As this scenario would interrupt the continuity of post-war politics, it would probably be the first snap election so shortly after another general election since 1932/33.

Macron: “If Merkel collaborates with the liberals, I’m dead.”

At the international level, the German insistence on multilateral policy-making, European integration and peace agreements was partly based on interior stability. Therefore, the worst-case scenario for the rest of the EU would be further months of political uncertainty, as without a clear German foreign policy the most pressing problems are likely to develop in a way that is against European interests. Brexit and its implications for the future stability of the Union, the ongoing Ukraine conflict in the EU neighbourhood and persistent tensions with Turkey, which might further divide the EU, are only some examples. Within the Union, Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious reform plans were already unlikely to be fully implemented with a strong continuity-chancellor Angela Merkel, but now even the smallest projects might fail or be postponed simply because the provisional government in Berlin is too weak to take such far-reaching decisions. The current situation is therefore even worse for Macron than a participation of the liberals, who are against a common European fiscal policy, in the Jamaica-coalition – a scenario which he famously commented, “If she [Merkel] collaborates with the liberals, I’m dead.” Further important reforms, including a European defence union, were already delayed because of the numerous elections and the campaign in Germany this year, but without a stable German government there is no realistic perspective for their implementation in the next months, which could mean another major setback for the already difficult processes of European consolidation and integration.

Beyond the European horizon, German and European influence is shrinking in the conflict between Saudi-Arabia and Iran, which one or two years ago was still partly mediated by the German foreign minister, as the Saudis even withdrew their ambassador from Berlin. Calling Angela Merkel “leader of the free world” after the EU-referendum in Britain and the election of Donald Trump was wishful thinking and an exorbitant exaggeration, but she has definitely been the leading figure of the EU. As German foreign policy – or rather a lack of it – might have significant negative effects on the German application for a seat in the UN Security Council, Merkel’s weakness thus benefits agenda-setting by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and, partly, Donald Trump at the cost of European interests.

After years of German political and economic ascendancy in Europe, which not only disbalanced the European economic architecture and the effects of the crisis, but also paved the way for decisions in the euro-crisis with devastating effects for southern Europe, it is hard for Europeans to realize that there might be something worse than German dominance: sudden German weakness.

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