Two months ago, the victory of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany’s federal elections seemed to balance the surprising third-place finish of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Over the last 12 years, Merkel—or “Mutti” (Mommy), as she’s affectionately known—has successfully navigated a political era that’s otherwise sunk many a politician: She saw her country through an international economic crisis, and during the Ukraine crisis and beyond, she’s been one of the few political leaders savvy enough to grapple with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the region’s ever-tenuous political situation.
But now, a twist: For the first time since the Federal Republic’s formation, in 1949, post-election coalition talks are not only taking more than a few weeks to conclude—they’re also failing outright, at least so far. Late last month, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) walked out of coalition negotiations, a turn that’s brought Merkel back to the drawing board. Internationally, the negotiation breakdown has been called a state crisis, a sign that not even Germany can be counted on in today’s heady political season. But while this is certainly a unique moment in Germany’s modern political history, it’s not necessarily a symptom of collapse.
To get a better pulse on Berlin’s current political situation, I spoke with Jeffrey Anderson, a professor and the director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, about the coalition talks. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below.
What seems to be happening currently in American politics is that issues are now so divisive that politicians would rather refuse to compromise than seem weak on those issues. Is something similar happening in Germany?
My sense is no. That’s not to say that the discussions between and among parties in Germany are not hard-fought, or that politicians aren’t willing to go to the brink in attempts to secure policies favorable to their constituencies. That’s to say that’s normal politics. If there’s a group or a political strain in Germany that might be compared to the current situation in the United States—where the Tea Party and other elements have shown themselves to be uninterested in compromise—that would be the AfD. But its members are in the minority. They’re in the opposition, one way or another, and so no one’s really negotiating with them. They’re obviously staking out lots of extreme positions and talking about not compromising, but, frankly, no one’s asking them at this point. The discussions are taking place elsewhere on the political spectrum.
With the FDP, the real breaking point, it seems, was immigration policy. In your view, this wasn’t so much a refusal to compromise as it was politics as normal?
If you think about it, there are only two real options coming out of the September elections for a viable coalition. The FDP found itself in the driver’s seat, and its leadership was concerned about getting swallowed up like it did the last time it was in coalition with the CDU. So its leaders were driving a hard bargain, and at the end of the day, the party leader, Christian Lindner, didn’t get what he wanted, so he withdrew. He might have expected that move to elicit more compromises on the part of the other two parties, but it didn’t. So, in some ways, he had to content himself with that symbolic act, and Merkel has turned her attention elsewhere. But these were legitimate issues about which there are differences of opinion—between and among parties. It was always a stretch to imagine a viable coalition coming out of the so-called “Jamaica” negotiation, and in the end, it didn’t work. At the same time, I don’t think that anyone is drawing conclusions about the fate of German politics, and the inability to compromise, from this set of negotiations.
I take it you’re not exactly of the opinion that this means German democracy is in crisis?
Not at all. These are difficult times, and in some ways Germany’s reputation for stability and predictability, which also have been synonymous with Merkel’s reign as chancellor, has created a rather uncompromising—if I can use that term—benchmark for comparison. We’re now finding ourselves in a situation where there’s a very real prospect of an inability to come to terms with the fact that new elections may well be called or that a minority government may emanate from this process, all of which is unprecedented in recent German politics. It’s certainly unusual.
There’s been no shortage of German commentators arguing that the sky is falling, that German democracy is on its knees, but I certainly don’t see it that way, and many others don’t, either. For sure, these are difficult times: immigration, Europe, tax law—parties are arguing over things about which they have real differences of opinion. But it’s not the kind of politics we’re seeing here, in the United States; these are different kinds of issues with different consequences.
Is it possible to be in a grand coalition, or any other kind of coalition in the German political system, and not become absorbed into one indistinguishable party?
It’s very difficult for that not to happen. The very essence of a grand coalition is a coming together of what are usually considered to be the two major choices for voters: the center left and the center right. So there’s a tendency for there to be this great blending of responsibility and a great washing out of policy differences—a lowest-common-denominator approach to politics that ends up leaving a lot of important issues off to the side because they’re too difficult for the major parties to agree on. That tends to fuel a sense of dissatisfaction and alienation in the electorate, and it gives opportunities for fringe parties and extremist parties to cause trouble. It’s no accident that at the end of each of the last three grand coalitions, stretching back to the 1960s, that the extremist parties have benefitted from the election. They’ve come out stronger at the end of each of those grand coalitions, and that happened this time around, too, with 20 percent of the vote going to either AfD on the right or the Linke party on the left.
In terms of the failure to form a Jamaica coalition: Was that an impossible task to begin with, or more of a failure on the parts of party leaders?
That’s a tough question to answer. The odds were always long. There were significant differences across multiple issues, particularly between the two smaller parties—the two potential junior coalition partners, the FDP and the Greens. It’s in some ways surprising that they came as close as they did, but immigration was a sticking point. It also was Europe that ended up being a sticking point. Ironically, Lindner was accused of being a kind of opportunist and a completely unprincipled modern leader, who was only looking out for his own aggrandisement in the end. During the campaign, that was a common criticism. And yet, in a way, he acted on principle. I think that he was thinking about the long-term health of his party, and he didn’t want to join a grand coalition in which he could be accused of having abandoned key party tenants.
Because there’s currently some chaos in the political system, how much do you think that this coalition-building wrangling could benefit the AfD?
The AfD has found itself in a major internal struggle since the election. There’s been a string of defeats inflicted on the moderate wing of the party, starting with the expulsion—or, actually, the decision to leave the party on the part of Frauke Petry, the former party leader. The AfD is now moving very much in the direction of its hardline wing, which means no compromises with anyone, no interest in contributing to legislative solutions, but simply a party of opposition and protest within the Bundestag. It’s not clear whether that’s a winning strategy in the long run. The nearly 13 percent of the vote the AfD got—a lot of that was protest votes from voters who were unhappy with either the Social Democrats or the CSU or the CDU and who were looking to send a message. But if that party keeps moving out to the fringes, it will become much harder for the party to attract those disgruntled voters from the previous center-left and center-right parties. I wouldn’t be overly concerned about the AfD’s profiting from the current stalemate.
Martin Schulz [the leader of the Social Democratic Party] is now under a lot of pressure to go back on his word. Would his political reputation suffer more than it already has if he were to soften the bold statements he made against certain coalitions on Election Day?
He’s under a lot of pressure—from both sides. On the one hand, the base, for the most part, appears to be sending a message: Don’t go into another grand coalition. It’ll be fatal to the party’s prospects. We need a period to reorient and renovate ourselves. But the establishment parts of the party—the parts that have served in government in the past—are arguing that it’s essentially Schultz’s duty and the Social Democrats’ duty to save the country from this period of stalemate and stasis; that the interests of the country are at stake and that it must go back into a grand coalition, though on its own terms. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
The SPD has a three-day conference that starts on Thursday; Schulz is obviously scheduled to speak. People will be looking very closely at how he portrays the situation, and if he decides to take a strong position, one way or another. One thing is for sure: If the Social Democrats do decide to go back into a grand coalition, it will only be if they can do so on their own terms. They’re going to push a very hard line on Europe, in particular, and on immigration policy, which would require Merkel to move her party substantially to the left. So this could fall apart, not because the Social Democrats decide to stay out, but because the CDU can’t bring itself to come to the terms the SPD would put forward. There are long odds here, too, I have to say.
I’ll add that the most likely outcome is also the one that would, in some ways, be the biggest departure for postwar German politics: a minority government. It could be Merkel, but it could also be somebody else, if Merkel steps down from the CDU leadership, having failed in two successive rounds to preside over a successful coalition negotiation, and if she turns the party over to someone else, who would become chancellor of a minority government. This person would still need the support of the Social Democrats or a combination of the Social Democrats and the Greens, or perhaps the FDP, to actually vote her as chancellor. After that, the government would, on a rolling basis, basically stitch together majorities on anything it’d want to put through Parliament. It’s not a formula that augurs well for stability, in the sense that it’s not likely to be a long-lasting arrangement, but no party—except perhaps the AfD—wants a new election.
So, all said, how concerned should we be?
We should be concerned in the sense that, for the last several years, Germany has been an essential partner for other European countries as well as for the United States. A lot of that’s changed with the election of Donald Trump; that close relationship between the United States and Germany has weakened. What’s more, Germany has a government, but it’s not a government that’s really capable of leading right now. It’s a caretaker government until the coalition situation is resolved. For as long as that endures, Germany is less influential, internally and externally.
But we’re also just so far away from anything like Weimar, or any of those other historical analogies that’ve been thrown around. The German economy is doing extremely well; Germany is still a stable democracy; it’s functioning according to its laws—it just finds itself, now, in a rather unusual deadlock situation, and political actors are working hard to resolve that. I think that as long as we can say that, we should be more interested and curious than worried.