Weakened Merkel Heads New German Grand Coalition Government
Angela Merkel has been re-elected Chancellor of Germany by the German parliament, ending months of uncertainty after indecisive Sept. 2017 federal election results and floundering coalition talks pointed to a fresh election to resolve the electoral deadlock.
Per Article 63 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, the Chancellor of Germany is elected by a majority of members of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German Federal Parliament, upon the proposal of the Federal President. Under Article 64, the ministers that comprise the rest of the government are then appointed by the President “upon the proposal” of the Chancellor. As such, Merkel’s re-election as Chancellor paved the way for her to appoint her fourth successive government.
Ever since the founding of West Germany in 1949 and the reunification of Germany in 1990, democratic politics has been dominated by the conservative center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU, along with its sister party, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, CSU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Elections delivering no outright majority in the Bundestag to either major party produced German governments based on ideologically compatible coalitions with minor parties — such as the centrist pro-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), which has been part of separate coalitions with both the CDU/CSU and the SPD in the past; and the center-left environmentalist Alliance 90/The Greens, which was in coalition with the SPD between 1998 to 2005.
However, in certain circumstances, coalition government between the CDU/CSU and the SPD — Germany’s version of the “grand coalition” — has been possible, albeit rare on the federal level. Prior to the Sept. 2017 election, postwar Germany has seen only three such grand coalitions, all under CDU Chancellors: a three-year government under Kurt Georg Kiesinger after the FDP withdrew from coalition talks with the CDU/CSU in 1966; Merkel’s first government, which was the result of an inconclusive election in 2005; and Merkel’s third government (the incumbent administration going into the Sept. 2017 election), formed in 2013 after the FDP, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, failed to enter the Bundestag.
Since becoming Chancellor in 2005, Angela Merkel has served as a pair of steady hands in over a decade of turmoil, guiding Germany through the worst financial crisis in 2008 (and the ensuing eurozone crisis) in recent memory and championing an open-door policy in handling the refugee crisis. However, prior to the Sept. 2017 election, Merkel had faced increasing criticism at home over her refugee policy and coalition partner SPD seeking to oust her party from the chancellorship.
On Sept. 24, 2017, German voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the political establishment, giving the CDU/CSU and the SPD their worst performances since 1949 and elevating the far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) — which had yet to enter the Bundestag prior to 2017 — to become the third largest party in parliament, behind the CDU/CSU and the SPD.
As the SPD had announced an intent to reject any new grand coalition, a weakened CDU/CSU proceeded to engage in talks to attempt to form a “Jamaica coalition” with the FDP and the Greens. Protracted negotiations collapsed in November after the FDP withdrew from talks over disagreements on migration and energy policy, making a minority government or fresh elections increasingly likely.
However, according to reports leaked to German media, CDU/CSU and SPD leaders eventually met in early January 2018 in exploratory talks to renew the grand coalition. The result of the intense back-and-forth between the ideological opponents was announced on Feb. 7, 2018, with the SPD securing several concessions in labor policy and distribution of the government ministries. The SPD rank-and-file approved of the new coalition deal on Mar. 4, although under new party leadership: SPD leader and former President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz resigned in mid-February in an attempt to quell SPD discontent over the coalition deal.
Merkel’s new government of 15 ministers grants the SPD control over the finance, foreign affairs, justice, labor, family affairs, and environment ministries. In order to placate critics from her own CDU/CSU, Merkel has appointed a political rival to be health minister and relinquished the post of CDU general secretary to a possible future successor.
It remains to be seen if such a “marriage of convenience” between two weakened center parties can effectively deal with the issues facing Germany today and stem the rise of populist far-right politics in national discourse — a challenge that is faced by many other countries across Europe and the world.