Following the German elections on Sunday, Germany´s government leadership, consisting of social democrats (SDP) and conservative CDU/CSU, woke up with a political hangover on Monday morning. The results (see graphic) left commentators puzzled and put chancellor Angela Merkel in an uncomfortable situation. CDU/CSU, the party she has been leading since 2000, solely reached 33% in the general elections – winning first place, but with a shocking 8.6% loss compared to 2013. A more severe hit was only taken by the social democrats (SDP), which, led by former European parliament’s president Martin Schulz, fell to 20.5 percent after polling 25.7% in the last general election. The two main parties appear to be the greatest losers of this election night, both reaching their worst results in Germany since the end of the Second World War. With Merkel’s old coalition partner SDP refusing to help her organise another grand coalition in pursuit of structural restoration in the opposition; the only option that allows Merkel to lead a majority government is a so-called “Jamaica-coalition” made up of CDU/CSU, liberals (FDP) and the Green Party.
Angela Merkel’s popularity polls reached a record low last year after her decision to prevent a humanitarian crisis and allow stranded refugees to enter Germany following a Hungarian crackdown. The ‘chancellor of the free world’, as she was once famously portrayed on the cover of the Time Magazine, decided to stand for re-election nonetheless and, by the summer, regained a lot of her lost popularity. With results far below what polls suggested, Mrs. Merkel, aged 63, now faces the potentially toughest of her four terms. Let’s have a look at what could constitute key challenges in the coming months and years:
Forming a working coalition
The “Jamaican-coalition” has never been tried at the national level. However, Mrs. Merkel, who has a doctorate in Physics, has no other option than to conduct this political experiment and make it work. The liberals –led by charismatic Christian Lindner and now re-strengthened at 10.7% after 4 years in the non-parliamentary opposition – and the Green party differ on a broad range of topics and do not offer easy negotiations. Potential reasons for dispute between Green Party and liberals can be found in almost every policy field, from the design of insurance (keeping the dual private/public systems vs. a fully public system), to the future of mobility (market decision vs. ban of combustion engines in 2030) and the subsidies of renewable energy (market vs. unrestricted subsidisation). The CDU stands somewhere in between the two of them on many issues. While Merkel will surely be able to find common ground with either of them, convincing the coalition partners of the needed compromise will be a challenge. Without any doubt, the coalition also offers opportunities: the liberals will breathe new life into topics of the future after campaigning with a focus on digitization and education and the Green Party will be the ecologic conscience of the coalition; however, it will also have to adapt some of its electoral pledges.
Failed negotiations could lead to new elections, potentially further deteriorating Merkel’s base. Luckily, German democracy has a long tradition in coalition governments and is, unlike other European countries such as France, used to finding compromise. Hence, hope is not lost yet: Jamaica could well indeed play out.
Convincing the frustrated voters of populist right AfD
Of course, I have so far ignored the perhaps most shocking result of election night: the first entrance of a party on the far right of the spectrum into the German Bundestag since 1961. The populist right Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third strongest party, polling at 12.6% and gaining a high proportion of votes in eastern states, winning even direct mandates in some electoral districts. The AfD highly opposes migration and granting of asylum. Racist charades are part of its business model. From now on, Mrs. Merkel will be judged on her ability to deal with the so-called alternative in the federal parliament, destroying their divisive and simple-minded arguments with objective arguments. The hard work will lie in convincing the AfD’s voters that the answers to their perceived problems are not of a populist kind. One suggested way to deal with this is to bring her party, the CDU, back to its conservative roots, the abandoned space where AfD picked up many of its voters. These felt left alone by Mrs. Merkel following her decisions to abolish nuclear power and accept the refugee inflow, moving the party to the center of the political spectrum. In the meantime, leadership of CDU’s conservative sister party, Bavarian CSU, openly debates a separation from CDU to more effectively target AfD voters. However, Mrs. Merkel will be restricted by the limited choice of coalition partners she has: It will be impossible to credibly move her party away from the center to the center right if she leads a coalition with the progressive ecological green party. Potentially worse, the required compromises with the greens and the liberals, the politics of the next four years could intensify the societal divide, which is most visible at the old east-west border that used to mark the partition of Germany. Of course, there is also a chance for Merkel and German democracy: tensions that have grown under the surface for years are now forced to be properly addressed in the open waters of parliamentary debate.
Preparing Germany for the future
Naturally, all the fuzz with the populists should not be the country’s major concern for the next four years – the challenges of globalization and digitization are simply too big to get lost in political turmoil. Most Germans voters, 83% after all, voted for democratic parties and hence deserve parliamentary debate on their perceived most pressing issues. This 83% deserves a government powerful enough to make the necessary reforms and to shape the legislative frame around challenges such as digitization and the upgrading of infrastructure, specifically high-speed internet access and the countries decaying schools. A shift to life-long, future-oriented education is needed to create equal opportunities in a fast-changing environment, independent of personal background and age. On the other side, German society faces issues related to rising rents in cities and fixed-term contracts in a low-wage environment. These social challenges are potentially one of the reasons for the AfD rise, and Mrs. Merkel will only be able to hold up the trend towards populism if she can provide credible solutions to these problems. As discussed, her future coalition partners offer diverging solutions to the challenges of today and Mrs. Merkel will have to manage these without annoying her own parties’ voters.
Building a successorAfter 17 years of Merkel´s party leadership, the CDU shows a widely noted lack of potential successors for Angela Merkel. So far, the chancellor has a proven record and great creativity in getting rid of inner-party competition, not in building its leaders of the future. However, she cannot be a perpetual chancellor and to allow her party to win the first election after her exit (whenever that may be) it needs a strong candidate. It is now Mrs. Merkel’s task to allow talent in her party to prosper and to gain government experience. Young talents, however, are rare in Germany’s conservative party. One of the few, parliamentary state secretary Jens Spahn (37), a strongly conservative and openly gay CDU youngster, stays in discussion through regular provocative statements- just recently criticizing the growing need to speak English when ordering coffee in the parts of Berlin that are occupied by hipsters. Others, such as former state premier David McAllister (46) or ambitious Julia Klöckner (44), prefer to follow careers away from Berlin. Mr. McAllister is currently chair of the foreign affairs committee in Brussels and Mrs. Klöckner leads the opposition at her home base at state level, in Rhineland-Palatinate, after losing state-level elections in 2016. Merkel will have to use good timing in supporting and challenging potential successors, allowing them to grow into her big footstep. Equally, she will have to find the right moment to take the most difficult step – letting go of power.
It is now up to Merkel to choose the kind of exit she will eventually have from German politics. This fourth term, which could be her last one, will in many ways permit us to assess her legacy. Mrs. Merkel will tackle the challenges following her mantra ‘strength lies in peace’ and has hopefully not forgotten the experience of her mentor, former chancellor Helmut Kohl. Mr. Kohl left the political stage being highly unpopular and defeated by a wide margin in his last elections in 1998 after leading Germany for 16 years. He was later overthrown as party leader by a young, aspiring ‘Mädchen’ (girl) from the former GDR. Her name was Angela Merkel.
Philip Steinbrecher is a second year MPA student, originally from Germany. He received an International Business degree from Maastricht University and studied abroad in Hong Kong. Aside from his graduate studies focusing on European Public Policy, Philip worked in the public affairs departments of various organizations in Berlin, such as the Confederation of German Employers Associations and the Daimler AG.