Bankruptcy, wrote Ernest Hemingway, happens in two ways — ‘gradually and then suddenly’. By now, Angela Merkel will be beginning to fear that her remarkable career is about to move into that second motion. Barely a year ago, she was being talked about as the leader of the free world. Now she is blamed by her own party for upending German politics and, in the process, allowing the far-right to become a real political force for the first time since the 1940s. The cover of Der Spiegel, Germany’s main weekly, last week summed it up in one word: ‘Crisis.’
It’s a crisis that’s been intensifying for some time. It began when the federal elections last September delivered the worst result for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union since 1949 — a result so abysmal she was lucky not to be ousted. That may yet happen. There is growing ‘Merkel fatigue’ in the country and her centrist theology — Merkelism — is seen as a cause, not a remedy, for the current malaise. Her open-door migration policy has been blamed for pushing voters into the arms of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and transforming it from a reviled fringe group to a party with 92 members of parliament. Merkel’s latest move is to give AfD the status its members crave. By forming a coalition with her main opponent, the Social Democratic Party, she has made AfD into the main parliamentary opposition. Or, as the party itself would put it, the main alternative for Germany.
There was not much rejoicing in Berlin when Merkel announced her left-right coalition. ‘It’s the blind leading the blind,’ a Merkel supporter in the Bundestag told me the same morning that the Chancellor and Martin Schulz, the erstwhile SPD leader, unveiled their 177-page coalition agreement. The SPD leadership might be delighted with the plum jobs Merkel offered (finance, the foreign ministry) but its membership is worried that the coalition might be fatal. Their party was punished badly enough for its last coalition with Merkel, and its vote share collapsed to a postwar low. If they cling to her again, how might voters react next time? The opinion of SPD members matters: the coalition will now be put to all 465,000 in a postal vote. If they reject it, then there’s no deal. And, perhaps, new elections and a new crisis.
A marriage between the left and the right is seldom happy, but Merkel’s coalition promises to be one of pure misery. She proposes to run Germany with a government devoid of any organising principle, and one where neither side believes its actions will do anything to solve Germany’s problems.
The two sides are united only by romanticism about the Stabilitätskultur, the idea that Germany should never have a minority government, and fear of AfD. Both parties think they have a civilisational mission and that (to quote a Green member of the Bundestag) ‘opposing parliamentary factions are connected by a great responsibility to history’ to keep the far-right away from any influence. But the nobility of such a mission has, of late, been lost on most voters. And even some political parties: the idea of propping up a chastened, tin-eared Merkel did not appeal to the Greens and Free Democrats who walked out of talks months ago.
This is all quite new to modern German politics. Unlike Austria and France, the far-right has never been a realistic electoral force. Nor did AfD start out as extremists: it began when a group of economics professors set out to defend German economic orthodoxy, protesting against the eurozone bailout of Greece. It later branched into migration policy and gradually found its populist voice, helped in no small measure by Merkel’s welcoming of refugees in the summer of 2015.
AfD’s views on migration are still fringe: few side with the party’s ‘zero refugee cap’. The real source of its support was Merkel’s inability to find not just shelter but jobs, accommodation and some way of integrating the million newcomers into society. Germans aren’t anxious because immigrants are taking their jobs or holding back their pay rises. They worry about law and order, and curse Berlin for forcing them to prefer a less welcoming Germany because politicians have failed to deal with the problems that come with immigration. They are responding to a shambolic government.
And this is, now, the shambolic government that refuses to go away — or even be voted away. Prepare for the worst: Merkel is seeking to lead a coalition government offering continuity at a time when voters are demanding change. Except this time around, the Chancellor and her government allies will have far weaker support in the Bundestag and cannot afford rebellion in critical votes. The CSU, the Bavarian sister party of the CDU, has a new combative leader with an agenda. The Social Democrats are already going through a battle for the party’s soul and those campaigning for a turn to the left — perhaps even teaming up with the hard-left Die Linke party— are winning the debate.
Merkel’s own troops are already preparing to fight the next leadership. Peter Tauber, the party’s general secretary, resigned earlier this week for health reasons. Ever since the election, he has been a foil for Merkel, a legitimate target for the party’s frustration with her failed centrism and electoral repercussions. She was quick to appoint his successor and later this month Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the premier of Saarland, will take over this important post. She’s a centrist, seen as a mini-Merkel: expectations of change are low.
And what type of government can Germans now look forward to? Merkel and Schulz have put together yet another contradictory agenda: empty on big structural changes for the economy, strong on new government spending. The only part that brings out any passion in either leader is the tacit support for Emmanuel Macron’s eurozone reform plans and, in the face of Brexit, renewed efforts to keep the European Union together. This is a dangerous path in a Germany whose voters are distinctly cold about the type of reforms that Paris and Brussels long for.
Merkel’s allies can still make a good case for her survival: that she has kept the Christian Democrats in power for a long time and knows Berlin politics better than anyone else; that she did her best to form a coalition with the Liberals and the Greens, but was rebuffed, so she had no choice but to go back to the SPD. There is really no crisis, they say.
But such excuses ring hollow. Merkel’s big political project has been to move her party to the left and delete most of its conservative tradition. That’s exactly how she did more than anyone to create the political space AfD is now filling. Almost a quarter of Merkel’s CDU voters went elsewhere in the last election — yet her response now is to offer more of the same. And how might voters react? A clue came in a poll last week, showing support for AfD overtaking the SPD for the first time.
Merkel has been Germany’s dominant political figure for a dozen years. It is her policy — and her style of leadership — that has paralysed the country’s politics and threatens to see the far-right become the main opposition. For those who are angry with the German power establishment, there is only one person to blame.