Merkel’s future is in peril while the far-right anti-immigrant AfD benefits from the recent breakdown of coalition talks.
Germany faces the largest governmental crisis since the formation of the country in 1949.
After the Bundestag election last September, in which the two governing parties lost votes on a historic scale, especially in favor of a new right-wing party, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats entered into coalition negotiations with the Green party and the Free Democrats (FDP). After weeks of discussion, the negotiations were finally aborted by the FDP due to alleged insurmountable discrepancies, mainly in the area of refugee policies. Whether it comes to new elections or the formation of a minority government is just as uncertain as the future of the Chancellor herself.
The promising former party quartet dubbed “Jamaica coalition” obtained its name due to the resemblance of the Jamaican flag’s colors and those of the comprising parties: black for Merkel’s Christian conservative bloc that consists of two sister parties, green for the center-left ecological Green party, and yellow for the center-right neoliberal Free Democratic Party.
Unprecedented on a federal level, this four-party constellation was considered problematic from the outset, mainly due to arguably adamant animosities between the Green party on the one hand, and the right wing of Merkel’s conservative bloc and the FDP on the other hand. The majority of the population, however, was in great favor of the Jamaica coalition and relied upon the Chancellor’s negotiating skills to clear these discrepancies.
Refugees as a breaking point, again
The Merkel administration’s willingness to allow more than a million refugees mainly from Syria and other war-torn countries into Germany since 2015 led to a deep breach between the conservative party’s centrist camp around Merkel and its far-right anti-immigrant camp embodied by the Minister President of Bavaria, Horst Seehofer.
In the subsequent period, this breach manifested itself in fierce discussions on the infamous “Obergrenze”, an annual upper limit for taking in refugees, that turned into a downright combat term in the past two years. The concept of limiting the intake of refugees, as a side note, is unconstitutional since the German Basic Law simply provides no numerical limit to the right of asylum.
The Greens always defended a policy of open borders, while for Seehofer’s right-wing bloc sticking to the cap of 200,000 individuals was the key issue in the election campaign. More and more, this became also true for the FDP, which, as a one-man-show around the ambitious, self-obsessed poster boy Christian Lindner, wanted to make its mark far to the right of Merkel.
The upper limit was brought into the coalition negotiations by the right wing as strictly “non-negotiable”. The pragmatist Merkel, however, tried to soften the hardened fronts, and on Saturday the Greens finally put forward a compromise proposal: the combat term Obergrenze would give way to the bizarre phrase of a “breathing frame” under which the Greens would agree to the limit of 200,000 on the condition that the family reunification of already recognized refugees would be excluded from that number.
Cem Özdemir, the leader of the Greens, defended the abandonment of one of his party’s core positions to reporters with reference to his “responsibility, and with pleasure you can call it patriotism for the country” – very odd words to German ears for anyone in the German political landscape to the left of Merkel‘s conservative party.
But the power-hungry Green party’s willingness to compromise did not go far enough for the liking of FDP’s Christian Lindner. After all coalition parties started this last round of negotiations with confidence, Lindner unexpectedly walked out of the negotiations last Sunday night: “It is better not to rule than rule falsely. Goodbye!”
There are much larger differences between the Greens and the FDP than the refugee issue, above all taxes, coal mining, environmental protection or economic regulations. But as in the election campaign, in talk shows, or in the political debate in Germany in the last two or so years in general, everything comes down to this one topic.
For Merkel – who is widely considered the “Flüchtlingskanzlerin”, or “Refugee’s Chancellor” – this is a hard blowback that could potentially ring in the end of the Merkel era. What is widely perceived as a betrayal by FDP’s Lindner at the moment, could easily turn into a perceived failure of Merkel’s much-vaunted skills in reconciliation, modesty and problem management.
The rocky road to new elections
Since the elections in September, from which Merkel emerged as the winner, however, greatly weakened, Germany has no factual government. Since no new government has been formed yet, the old administration, the so-called grand coalition consisting of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats (SPD), are merely the acting government, with Merkel as the acting Chancellor only.
And with the breakdown of coalition talks now, this limbo could potentially go on for a long time. In a country whose global trademark are values such as compliance, reliability and first and foremost utmost stability, this state of uncertainty is an upright shock: We Germans hate nothing more than uncertainty.
There are few options left now. One would be yet another 4-years-round of the grand coalition. Considering the strong rejection of it by the former grand coalition’s junior partner, the SPD, voiced via a recent party conference resolution steadfastly opposing it, and given last weeks’ railing against Merkel by its head, Martin Schulz, this option would be denounced as an act of great hypocrisy on the part of the SPD. The pragmatist power politician Merkel, though, is more and more pushing the SPD to that option that is widely considered four more years of political standstill among the population.
Another option would be the formation of a minority government, either by Merkel’s Christian Democrats alone or in coalition with the Green party only. What is not an unusual thing in other Western democracies has no precedent in German history and would not suit Merkel’s style of rule either.
Hence, new elections seem to be a likely option. The road to which, though, is a rocky one, since Merkel merely as acting Chancellor has no competence to propose a vote of confidence to the members of parliament in order to pave the way for eventual new elections – a procedure that toppled Merkel’s predecessor Gerhard Schröder in 2005.
In the present case, the authority to initiate new elections resides with the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Although the former Foreign Minister, who is head of state only since last March, expressed his reluctance in a televised speech last week, he will, eventually, be left with no option but to initiate the process.
A time-consuming process, though, that has to clear many constitutional hurdles and would allow new elections not before March 2018, as Niema Movassat, MP for the German Left party reckons up – leaving the country with no actual government for more than half a year all in all.
The far-right AfD will benefit
This most recent political instability – by German standards, one might call it chaos – avails above all the already most successful political newcomer in post-war Germany: the far-right anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, for which the failure of the Jamaica coalition talks is arguably a great strategic success. In a sort of Trump-light fashion, the AfD ran on an anti-establishment platform and is now relishing to watch its detested Chancellor Merkel stumble.
“Jamaica has failed – Merkel’s dawn after 12 endlessly long years!”, the party’s spokesman, Prof. Dr. Jörg Meuthen crowed on Facebook over the breakdown in negotiations. “The reign of the eternal Chancellor actress is now likely to come to an end.”
Founded only in 2013, the AfD, time and again, prompted fierce objections for its racist, Islamophobic and anti-refugee slurs. Gaining a sensational 13 percent in the September elections, it moved into the Bundestag as the third largest party, mainly at the expense of the two battered parties from Merkel’s grand coalition which both brought in historically bad election results.
Skillfully, the AfD will exploit Merkel’s unprecedented weakness and the apparent ineptitude of the long-established parties to form a functioning government in order to further sharpen its self-given image of the troublemaker who is stirring up the dusty, corrupt party system. While there is certainly some truth in that image, it is merely a pompous charade to disguise the party’s far-right agenda in the social arena and its hardcore neoliberalism in the economic field (again, the German Trump-light-counterpart).
While it seems uncertain if Chancellor Merkel will politically survive new elections, in turn, it is quite certain that the only real beneficiary of this recent governmental crisis will be the far-right bigotry of the AfD.