Angela Merkel will get her fourth term as Germany’s chancellor. Members of the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, voted to get into government with her again. Yet neither the SPD nor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union are cheering the idea of four more years in power. Merkel may not be a ‘dead woman walking’, but she’s reaching the end of her remarkable career.
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. Germany will now get a majority government, but the country’s politics are in a state of 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. 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 local party bosses are 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. Two thirds of SPD’s members backed the new coalition with Merkel, but when the party gathered for a special conference in January only 56 percent of the delegates supported jumping into bed again with their arch-rival.
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 many 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 going 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. Merkel cannot afford rebellion in critical votes, but all parties in the government now have fractions that are out to defy Berlin.
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 new converts.
Merkel’s own troops are already preparing to fight the next leadership. Peter Tauber, the party’s general secretary, resigned two weeks ago 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 last week Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the premier of Saarland, took over this important post. She’s a centrist, seen as a mini-Merkel: expectations of change are low. All other contenders to succeed Merkel will be in the new government, and that gives the chancellor a way to discipline them. But no one is happy with the actual policy they are about to pursue, and many suspect that Jens Spahn (the new Health Minister) and others in the running to take over the party leadership will try to distance themselves from the government.
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 two weeks ago, 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.