More than five months after Germany’s federal election last September, a new grand coalition government – comprising Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – has finally been formed. But there is little reason to celebrate.
Germany has endured nearly six of months under a caretaker government (the longest in the Federal Republic’s history), a failed coalition agreement, weeks of arduous negotiations, painful internal party rumblings, and much politicking.
Moreover, a recent national poll dealt yet another blow to the center-left SPD, indicating that if elections were held today, the party would be outperformed by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Add to that Europe’s ongoing right-wing backlash (exemplified, most recently, by Italy’s election) and the threat of a trade war with the United States, and Germany’s new grand coalition reeks of desperation. Not surprisingly, reactions to its formation were subdued, with the public and political insiders alike mostly just relieved to have the long ordeal behind them.
Germany’s new grand coalition – the third in Merkel’s long chancellorship – is a marriage of convenience: loveless, largely unloved, and devoid of any overarching vision. It is a good outcome for Germany’s short-term stability, especially with regard to Europe. But it is an uncertain outcome in the longer term, given the coalition’s considerable political baggage, and it is a bad outcome for democracy, especially at a time when populist forces are a growing threat.
One might argue that it is good for democracy that Merkel’s coalition has shrunk. Because the government parties control barely more than half of the Bundestag, they no longer overwhelm the opposition, rendering it irrelevant. The problem is that the largest official opposition party is now the populist AfD.
Moreover, the share of the Bundestag held by opposition parties that are only semi-loyal to liberal democracy – the AfD and its left-wing counterpart Die Linke (the Left) – now approaches one-quarter. Not since the Weimar Republic has a far-right party been the largest opposition force, or have anti-liberal forces controlled such a large share of the Bundestag.
This illiberal result is a direct consequence of the SPD’s participation in Merkel’s government. Had the SPD remained in opposition, as it vowed to do after its poor election result, it could have spent the next four years renewing its platform and membership, while acting as a strong challenger to both Merkel and the right- and left-wing populists.
A Merkel-led CDU/CSU minority government would have meant open debate on all major policy issues and legislative proposals, enlivening the Bundestag and showing the public that political parties matter, and that a grand coalition isn’t essential to progress.
Instead, Germany got a government that will implement a predetermined set of policies, contained in a 170-page agreement hammered out behind closed doors – one that promises more of the same. Its members will engage in all of the same professionally choreographed and well-rehearsed debates, the ritualistic display of legislative process that devalues parliament because the outcome is pre-determined.
For Europe, this means that no significant shift in Germany’s approach – for better or for worse – should be expected. French President Emmanuel Macron will not see a German hand reaching out to work with him on European Union reform, though he might be able to grasp a finger or two.
To be sure, the new grand coalition’s policy approach will be different in some respects from the last. In her determination to form a government, Merkel yielded to the SPD on important issues, including EU policy and labour-market matters. As a result, the overall legislative programme outlined in the coalition agreement is more social democratic than that of any previous grand coalition.
But, ultimately, Germany can expect more of the same for the time being. This will keep the government stable in the near term. But it is a feast for populists – and a missed opportunity for democracy.
In fact, whatever stability the CDU/CSU and the SPD think that they have secured, there are plenty of reasons for concern in the medium term. The CDU is increasingly impatient with Merkel and her policy approach. And, though it is the largest party, it has relatively fewer government posts than the SPD, with no CDU cabinet minister hailing from eastern Germany, an AfD stronghold.
Unlike the CDU, whose members will soon feel short-changed, the SPD has rediscovered the virtues of internal democracy, which revealed a significant disconnect between the party’s leadership and its base. Whatever success the SPD has had playing the coalition game, the party’s participation in yet another Merkel-led government stands to cost it growing numbers of lower- and middle-income voters.
Both the CDU and the SPD face a shrinking electoral base and a falling supply of leadership cadres. As a result, both parties and their coalition will become increasingly unstable over time, a trend that would be accelerated by their poor performance in the 2019 European Parliament election, not to mention in Germany’s upcoming state and local elections.
Meanwhile, in the absence of a crisis that demands political attention, all of the problems and risks that Germany’s previous coalition governments have failed to address will continue to be ignored. At a time when German leadership is so badly needed in Europe, the country is set to continue to play a passive role.
Until recently, the SPD seemed to prefer a loss to a half-victory, much as a person might decide that it is better to be alone than in a mediocre relationship. But now the SPD seems to think that being in power, by joining the ruling coalition, is automatically better than being in opposition, no matter the cost. And the cost could be very high indeed. Loveless marriages can last a long time, but they rarely end well. - Project Syndicate