Despite collapsed coalition, Angela Merkel is only down, not out

Despite collapsed coalition, Angela Merkel is only down, not out
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The collapse of coalition talks in Germany has left many in the international community wondering about Angela Merkel’s security as chancellor. But Merkel is well-poised to remain in power — although less enthusiastic than in years past, she still enjoys support from within her center-right Christian Democratic (CDU) party and has no substantial challengers with a path to the chancellorship without a new election and a major upset of the CDU.

It would take new elections and major mutiny within her own party for Merkel’s position to be in true danger. A lack of term limits and the tendency of German voters to seek and reward stability in politics both contribute to a political culture that produces long-standing leaders and isn’t very effective in preparing a back bench of potential chancellor candidates. Merkel herself was relatively inexperienced when she rose to the chancellorship, and in fact led a party uprising against her mentor Helmut Kohl to get there.

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Merkel still has a few options for forming a government right now. Following heavy losses on election night in September, the center-left SPD party leader Martin Schulz declared that the SPD would be entering the opposition in an attempt to save the party’s dignity after having worked in a coalition with the CDU for the previous term. Following the surprising failure of coalition negotiations, the SPD has softened its tone, and as of Monday evening Schulz had tentatively laid out his party’s demands for another grand coalition. Talks will begin next week between the two parties to see what the options are for another grand coalition.

All of Germany’s centrist parties, but particularly the SPD, are in a tough political position. Much like in the United States, there has been a pull towards political extremes in Germany. While in the U.S. these extremes are within parties, the variety of options — from the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) to Die Linke (the leftist communist party) — in the German system give voters many options at the polls.

State elections take place in Bavaria next year, where the CDU sister party the CSU will face electoral threats from the AfD. The AfD’s entrance into the Bundestag this year as the third strongest party with 13 percent of the vote has caused major alarm within the country, and the mainstream political parties are trying to figure out their next moves to win back voters. Another grand coalition would be a gamble given that both parties were handed significant losses following their last grand coalition.

If things with the SPD don’t work out — which shouldn’t be ruled out given the immense pressure on Schulz to turn the party’s voter losses around — Merkel could also form a minority government. No party — aside, perhaps, from the AfD — wants new elections and the risk of losing even more votes. Given these realities, Merkel is focused heavily right now on finding a way to make one of these two solutions work.

New elections or a minority government would be a first in modern German history. This will almost certainly be the most challenging of her terms as chancellor and she will likely have to recalibrate her positions on deeper European integration and immigration in Germany.

For the United States, Merkel’s increased domestic pressures may make Germany a more risk-averse international partner. If the SPD is able to maintain greater pressure on Merkel than in past grand coalitions, they could propose a softened stance on Russia and Ukraine or make it more difficult to maintain support for sanctions.

Trade agreements at the European level (the only level where they are legal for Germany) with the U.S. will continue to be on the back burner as Merkel won’t have the political momentum to reframe an issue that faced well-organized public opposition during TTIP negotiations. Merkel may also be politically motivated to take a stronger and more direct stance against President Trump’s more controversial policies.

The president remains wildly unpopular among the European set. Defense spending and contributions to NATO — which Trump routinely references — will be a tough sell in a grand coalition with the SPD who flat out rejected the 2 percent target on the campaign trail. The populist surge across the West has caused many countries to turn their attention towards domestic concerns, and Germany will be no exception.

Outside of Germany, the world spins on, and Merkel and Schulz both are under intense pressure as they begin preliminary talks both from the international community (especially the European Union) and their own sense of political responsibility to form a government that can fulfill Germany’s responsibilities on the global stage.

Heidi Obermeyer is an American and a German Chancellor Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, Germany.