If you think about German government, the first thing that comes up is probably not crisis. You think of Angela Merkel and that nothing really seemed to have changed – admittedly, the arrival of around 1 million refugees seemed to have caused some administrative struggles but after all everything seems fine. And indeed, one couldn’t speak of Germany as being in a civil war or any comparable situation, but a crisis is nonetheless luring.
Last September, elections to the Bundestag (the German Parliament) were held with a widely expected, but nevertheless puzzling outcome. Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) with their Bavarian sister party (CSU) won the elections with around 33%, with the Social Democrats (SPD) coming second. These two major parties (comparable to the British Tories and Labour) had been in government together since 2013 and before that from 2005-2009. While coalition governments are the norm in Germany due to its electoral system, these so called Grand Coalitions (or GroKo) had only been necessary once before 2005. But they have become more common with the diversification of parties and the German unification in 1990. In fact, the current Bundestag has both the highest number of parties and seats. This, however, also made coalitions more complicated than ever before.
So, what has happened since the 24th September?
Martin Schulz, the SPD’s leader, made it clear they wouldn’t be part of the coming government. Consequently, the Republic expected a Merkel led ‘Jamaica Government’ (referring to the colours of the Jamaican flag), consisting of CDU, pro-business FDP, and progressive-environmentalist Greens. Yet, these coalition talks collapsed unexpectedly with the withdrawal of the FDP on the day a final agreement was expected. Schulz confirmed his stance on another GroKo once again, meaning, if this was meant seriously, Merkel would face either a minority government or new elections. However, the SPD did not choose to stick to that opinion for very long. Thus, last Sunday, a special party conference voted to begin formal coalition talks with the CDU, meaning Germany could face another 4 years of consensus-driven politics that would result in a stagnation of politics and policies for the foreseeable future.
The question that now needs to be answered is of fundamental importance to the future of German politics and indeed democracy. The main beneficiary from the loss of trust in the government was the right-wing populist AfD, the self-proclaimed Alternative for Germany.
Typically for populist protest parties, the AfD offers simple solutions for difficult problems and gains support primarily from those who feel left behind, those who did not benefit from Germany’s massive success due to globalisation. A key criticism over the past years has been, amongst others, stagnating wages and the decrease of real income, on which Germany’s strong exporting sectors rely. Combined with a federal government that leaves no space for open disagreement and discourse between the two competing catch-all parties in the middle of the political spectrum, any PPE student will guess that satisfaction with the government will not be high. This seems to be especially the case in the East of Germany, the states of the former German Democratic Republic which lost many of their industries and in which unemployment is on a higher level than in the rest of the country. These states are those with the highest vote share for either the AfD or Die Linke (a left-wing successor of the GDR’s ruling party). While they couldn’t be further apart in most aspects of policy, their voters are united in their mistrust of constant consensus and most certainly of the GroKo.
What the next government will have to do, is to solve the biggest issue modern Germany has faced so far. It will have to unite the people of a country that once strived to being united. It will not be able to go on like they did – a ‘weiter so’, as it would be called in German, must not be its political agenda.
And this is the crucial issue. The only thing another Grand Coalition will be able to offer is a ‘weiter so’ of stagnation. After 8 years of GroKo in the 12 years Merkel has been in power, there is not much left to agree on. While there needs to be stable government and both new elections or a minority government with just a third of the vote would not help, the SPD must not forget the reason why it first believed it should lead the opposition. People have massively lost trust in it for a number of reasons, and without a radical plan to change in and change the future of Germany its days as an alternative to a CDU government might be counted, playing right into the hands of populism.