Today’s announcement by Angela Merkel concerning her political future was something of a foregone conclusion. The embattled German leader will step down when her current term as chancellor ends in 2021. Nor will she be seeking reelection as the leader of the Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) in December. The big question in Berlin at the moment is whether or not Merkel will be able to survive politically until 2021. Merkel’s announcement today will eventually strip her of her influential powers in Europe and internationally, as well as on the domestic front.
For years she has been the unofficial Godfather of the European Union. For years her support was essential to the creation, and expansion of many EU economic and political policies. If Merkel supported a certain policy or decision, it would blossom. If she opposed it for whatever reason, it would never see the light of day. Even as the effects of Merkel’s decisions on the migrant crisis negatively impacted the continent, the EU and Brussels continued to follow her lead. The same held true through the rise of right wing populist political parties around Europe, and the growing anti-EU sentiment in many nations. As long as Germany, and Merkel appeared politically stable, the EU refused to panic.
All of that began to change last September when the major political parties in Germany all suffered heavy losses in the federal elections. Merkel’s re-election as chancellor did little to prevent the government from entering a six-month coma as efforts to build a grand coalition got underway. Finally, in March, 2018 a grand coalition was formed. The domino effect was already underway though. The major parties of the grand coalition sustained heavy losses in last month’s Bavarian state elections, bringing on concern about the future of the coalition, and of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship.
Sunday’s election results in Hesse proved to be the last straw. CDU saw its share of the vote drop by 11 percentage points. Merkel’s declining popularity undoubtedly proved to be the major reason for CDU’s slide. The fact that she is standing down as the party leader will bring about a temporary reprieve, but it will not change the fact that her grand coalition is now perilously vulnerable. Its survival is now dependent upon the Socialist Democratic Party (SPD). SPD’s losses in Hesse were significant. Its share of the vote was down by 30.7 percent, the worst results there since 1946.
In the coming months, if SPD cannot show its members that its place in the coalition is benefitting the party, it will likely leave. SPD’s departure will likely sink Merkel’s grand coalition, and turn out to be the final nail in her political coffin.
Germany is no longer a refuge from the storm of voter dissatisfaction sweeping across Europe. Sunday’s regional elections in Bavaria have proven that beyond the shadow of a doubt. Yesterday, the Christian Social Union (CSU) received 36.8% of the vote, and lost its absolute majority in the Bavarian state parliament. In the last elections, held in 2013, the CSU received roughly 46% of the vote. Yesterday’s results mark the worst performance for the party since 1950. CSU’s decades-long domination of Bavarian politics is apparently over. Bavarian voters rejected the party and moved their support to the left and right. The Green Party captured 17% giving them second place. The right wing anti-immigration party AfD won 10.3% of the vote, giving them a visible presence in Bavaria, an area hard hit by the migrant crisis. AfD’s position is particularly remarkable given that the party did not even participate in Bavaria’s last regional election.
Sunday’s election results will have an adverse effect for Angela Merkel’s ‘grand coalition’ and German national politics as well. The civil, but tense relations, and policy disagreements between the member parties are already coming to light less than a day after the election. The German Social Democrats (SPD) is viewing the results as a wake-up call amid fresh concerns about the survivability of the coalition’s alliance at the national level. SPD’s head has all but called for the resignation of Horst Seehofer, CSU’s leader. The party wants the way the coalition works to be improved and believes the best way to achieve that goal is through personnel changes. SPD also suffered major losses on Sunday with its support in Bavaria cut in half.
Looking at the big picture, Merkel’s coalition has been dealt a massive blow. Her allies have been greatly humbled and their power sapped. SPD’s role in the coalition is up in the air right now, and if the coming regional elections in Hesse go badly for the party, as well as for CSU, it could bring the coalition crashing down. With it will come Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, and her long-running position as the leader of Europe’s most powerful nation-state.
Another day, another dent in Germany’s frail governing coalition. With her back against the wall, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reversed her open-door migrant policy in order to rescue her coalition from dissolving permanently. She reached the compromise with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer after he threatened to resign, a move that would have likely splintered Merkel’s coalition for good. The agreement Merkel hammered out at the EU summit in Brussels last week did not satisfy Seehofer. He continued to press ahead with his threat to resign, pushing Merkel to the brink. When all is said and done, it could be that Seehofer may have overplayed his hand. Whether or not that is the case, it is clear that his political rebellion exposed the increasingly vulnerable chancellor to future attacks. There is blood in the water in Berlin.
The compromise agreed to by Seehofer and Merkel revolves around opening transit centers on the German-Austrian border. Migrants seeking to enter Germany will be held there until a decision is reached on their asylum status. If they are ultimately denied entry, they will be deported to the EU nation they originally registered in.
Before the compromise deal becomes reality, Merkel has to convince the Social Democrats (SPD) to support it. This will not be easy. SPD chairwoman Andrea Nahles did welcome the deal, though she also stated that her party members have a number of questions on the details. At the peak of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015-16, SPD rejected the notion of transit centers on the border. Granted, the domestic political situation is strikingly different now, however, this time around there could still be some significant resistance to the idea of transit centers from SPD members.
In short, Merkel is not out of the woods yet. Her precarious balancing act atop a highwire has worked so far. Yet the longer it goes on, the chances that a single misstep will bring the coalition, and Merkel down, increase dramatically with each passing day.
Angela Merkel has her coalition. The Social Democrats voted in favor of forming a new government along with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union conservatives. Merkel will stay in the chancellery in Berlin, and political stability is set to return to Germany, at least for the moment. Forming a coalition after months of deadlock is assuredly a victory for her, though the scope and magnitude of it is up for debate. During the next few months, Merkel needs to tread carefully. One errant slip can turn it into a Pyrrhic victory and then the coalition becomes an albatross around her neck.
Make no mistake about it, Merkel has her work cut out for her. In spite of the grandiose proclamations of a ‘Grand Coalition,’ the government that has been put together more accurately resembles a diminished coalition at best. Germany was rattled by the political paralysis that followed the September elections, leaving many to wonder if the nation will ever be the same again. Support for the coalition is dropping, according to polls. At the same time, the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is building momentum. AfD is also setting itself up to be the main opposition party in parliament, raising the prospect of a clash with the new government somewhere down the line.
Merkel has promised to place more focus on domestic issues, though this might be a matter of too little, too late. Immigration is what brought Merkel and Germany to this point. The clumsy way she went about opening of Germany’s borders to the migrants is what caused German voters to turn on their chancellor. Merkel finds herself having to make amends, and possibly even give some of the new government’s positions and policies a slight tilt to the right. Last week she openly admitted that there are no-go zones in Germany after vehemently denying their existence for years. There are reports that Germany could even be seeking a reset in its relations with the United States. It’s a well-known truth that Merkel’s relationship with President Trump has been cool to say the very least.
The fact that she is making these moves now, and that Germany finds itself in this position shows the clout that right wing political parties, and populist movements now hold in Germany.
It all comes down to this for Angela Merkel. This week brings about what will likely be her final attempt to form a coalition government and end the political stalemate in Germany. Discussions are underway between Merkel and the leaders of the Social Democratic Party, with the German chancellor attempting to bring the SDP back into the fold of a new coalition. In the past, SDP had been part of a coalition led by Merkel, but when the party’s voter support for it diminished, SDP withdrew. This time around, even if Merkel receives the support of SDP leader Martin Schulz, he will need to gain the support of party membership before a formal agreement is reached. Given the proclivities of SDP voters concerning domestic issues, as well as Merkel’s polarizing effect, there is no guarantee the party will support joining a coalition that will reverse her political fortunes.
If Merkel fails to forge a coalition, her options are limited. She can continue ahead with a minority government. Without a stable majority in the Bundestag, it is unlikely that Merkel’s government will be able to pass any major legislation, or tackle significant issues. The support simply will not be there for such ventures.
Another alternative is to hold new elections. Returning to the electorate would be a risky proposition which could see the government lose even more seats and muddle the situation in the Bundestag even more. Simply reaching the point where snap elections can be held is almost impossible for Merkel. To call for the elections, she must first request that German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier dissolve the Bundestag. Since Merkel is the head of a caretaker government, she cannot do this. A third, less realistic option is for Steinmeier to nominate her for an election by parliament however, the road there is also complex and fraught with potential pitfalls.
With its own agenda tied to Merkel’s political fortunes, the European Union is keeping close tabs on events in Berlin this week. The EU realizes it cannot make any major strides with Germany remaining on the sidelines and preoccupied with its own political drama. Brussels is eager to move forward, though its hands are tied until the mess in Berlin is resolved.