Angela Merkel’s continued hold on the Chancellorship of Germany will depend on whether she can skilfully pull together disparate political groups in order to re-create the coalition between her conservatives and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) – one that governed the nation from 2013 to 2017. If she is unsuccessful in this endeavour, then a new election will surely be procured at a time when the alliance between her Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) is weak with traditional bases of support drifting towards the right-wing nationalists.
Merkel had until Thursday to consult with thirty-nine representatives from the SDP, CDU and CSU in order to form an agreement on how the country should be governed. Merkel herself posited in dialogue with Martin Schulz, the leader of the SDP, and Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, that her political career would likely be over if the negotiations were to fail.
Indeed, Mr Schulz is under considerable strain himself, having contended privately to his negotiation partners that his career would be over as well if talks were to sour. He is aware of a recent opinion poll which indicates that the SPD has the support of only 20% of the voting population which is even lower than the problematic election result that occurred after he formed his original coalition with the Merkel conservatives.
Taking this into account, the challenge for Mr Schulz is to pull together a perhaps slightly fractured alliance that does not cause party members to think that he has undermined their core principles. There is a vocal left-wing group within his party that has formed a ‘NoGroko campaign’, arguing that an alliance with conservatives will damage the credibility of the party and result in the repeat of the recent election outcome which was the worst since 1933. Mr Schulz plans to recommend a negotiation plan to the SPD party room on Friday and then present the final version to a conference of rank and file members on the 21st of January.
Merkel in particular has to keep a watchful eye on shifting political dynamics. Mr Schulz and Mr Seehofer seem to have formed an unusual alliance because the hard right of the Bavarian Christian Social Union are vehemently against the refugee policies of Merkel. The migration crisis is indeed the big calamity that has resulted in the headache that Merkel presently experiences. When her last large coalition government was formed in 2013 the CDU, CSU and SPD attained 67% of the vote. However, the 2015 migration crisis has caused their cumulative share of the vote to fall to 53% as voter support has flowed towards minority parties such as the nationalist Alternative for Germany political party which attained 12.6% of the vote in the election of 2017. Consequently, Mr Seehofer presently wants to see tougher refugee policies such as welfare cuts in order to retain the 8.5% of the vote that he lost in the previous election.
In order to build an effective coalition and avoid a problematic election, Mrs Merkel must be aware of opportunities for inter-party political cooperation that are available to her. She could give Mr Schulz the finance portfolio which would help him to fulfil his promises in relation to social security and infrastructure spending and consolidate a positive narrative for his leadership within the party which in turn would lead to stability in terms of an alliance. However, one of her major hurdles is to find out how she can accommodate the core desire of Mr Schulz to radically reform the health insurance system and create a “United States of Europe” by 2025 – basically a federal Europe – when most of the CSU and CDU oppose such reform. Another key sticky issue is that Mr Schulz wants a more liberal refugee policy and opposes conservative policies that aim to extend bans on the reunification of refugees with their families. However, there are no guarantees that a grand bargain is possible since Mr Schulz stated on the election night that if he lost an outright majority he would not form an alliance but instead seek opposition so if he were to renege on such a promise his credibility could be irrevocably damaged.
Merkel indeed faces a political headache as there are completely divergent interests that she must accommodate in order to remain in power. She should seek to identify the common political goals and objectives across each of the groups including her own and demonstrate to the leaders how working together will be more beneficial than the costs of a split. The big risk is that if she pursues another grand alliance then voters could claim that it is another ‘stitch up’ that involves ‘elites’ compromising their core principles for power. Realistically, grand alliances have only been demonstrably effective in two situations: (1) when the society is bitterly divided by religion, creed or race such as in Northern Ireland or (2) during crisis situations such as Great Britain during World War II. Voters are indeed also deprived of voting choices because the large political rivals are brought together which weakens their accountability. Merkel could also consider as an alternative forming an informal ‘Jamaica coalition’ by creating an inter-bloc alliance with the parties that wield less influence.
The situation Merkel faces will be her biggest test yet. If she cannot form a political deal then she can either seek the formation of a minority government (which she has already refused to do) or call another election. She should be aware of internal dismay towards her leadership within her party and widespread disillusionment with her approach to governance among the electorate, with 45% of Germans expressing disdain towards her according to an ARD TV channel poll published only last week. It is a tough dilemma to say the least.
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