Germany is ringing in 2018 not with a fresh start, but stuck in political limbo. While Chancellor Angela Merkel and other party leaders were originally confident that they’d have a new ruling coalition by Christmas, current estimates now put that timeline at Easter—if negotiations go smoothly. Exploratory negotiations between the Social Democrats (SPD) and Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) began on Jan. 7 and will last through the rest of the month. Formal negotiations won’t begin until March—but again, that’s assuming talks go well.
What’s more, perhaps the only group benefiting from the chaos so far is the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which will likely use the coalition struggles to decry traditional parties; if the talks fail (again), even better for AfD leaders Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland.
What does this all mean? Well, it doesn’t mean that Germany is having a democratic crisis, but, in 2018, the country’s uncertain political climate is likely to augur major changes to domestic policies, even leadership positions, and possibly a big moment of opportunity for the AfD.
The Carnegie Endowment’s Cornelius Adebahr told me in an interview that “forming a coalition government at this particular moment really entails that all questions and all issues are on the table.” While Merkel is in favor of another grand coalition between the SPD and CDU, members of both parties haven’t written off a minority government—something that’d be a first for the post-World War II era—wherein the CDU would always have to find new coalitions to pass legislation. SPD leader Martin Schulz suggested in December that a cooperation coalition would create a government only over issues the parties agree on, but that idea was short lived.
Today, another grand coalition seems most likely, but it’d come at a hard price for the CDU.
As the third-largest party, an SPD/CDU coalition would make the AfD the largest opposition party, a role that comes with important parliamentary powers in the Bundestag. For one, the party would be in charge of the Committee on Budget’s chairmanship, meaning that it’d have a say over fiscal policy, and get the first right to respond to government statements. For a party that already seems determined to disrupt the parliament—it was most recently in the news for more racist tweets, and Green Party Bundestag representative Konstantin von Notz worries about the AfD protesting during International Holocaust Remembrance Day—the right to respond will give it a consistent, visible platform. And, of course, as the opposition leader, the AfD would gain more legitimacy. Right now, it’s unclear how the AfD will try to govern. Its inexperience in politics, along with other parties’ refusal to include it in legislative coalitions, may make the AfD unsuccessful. But as of this week, the party is polling only about 5 points behind the SPD.
Moreover, in grand coalition discussions, the CDU is in the hard position of not only considering whether to give the AfD these new powers, but also negotiating tense domestic policy concessions with the SPD. It’s among domestic policy that Adebahr expects Germany to see the most dramatic changes from previous government’s policies. While Schulz was given a mandate to negotiate at the SPD party conference in December, the SPD is skittish about what some see as the party selling its soul for the third time. To reclaim the identity that critics say was lost in the last grand coalition, the SPD is likely to drive a hard bargain over domestic policy to re-establish its platform in the public eye and to make sure that the agreement passes the party vote.
According to Adebahr, with domestic policy, “there’s more room for innovation, whether it’s for education or police cooperation. People realize that there are things to be done in Germany and, say, if the SPD went ahead with its plan for a more generalized system of healthcare, that would be a real, fundamental change.” Michael Groschek, an SPD state minister, said that it’s “unthinkable” for the party to approve a coalition “without concrete improvements in the areas of labor market policy, pensions, and healthcare.” In a similar vein, SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner tweeted that the CSU’s funding goals aren’t compatible with his party’s financial priorities; the CSU, as noted in a draft resolution, promoted increasing NATO spending. For Stegner, he’d rather see the money go to social programs. On Sunday, a joint party statement said some, but not all, of the policy working groups were able to make progress.
Leadership positions are also a bargaining chip in coalitions. However, the SPD’s identity crisis means that it could negotiate aggressively, and more, in turn, could be at risk if talks get ugly. For instance, in a conversation in mid-December, Adebahr gave current foreign minister and former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel a 50-50 chance of staying. Though he’s held the position for longer than some expected and is a political heavyweight, his close relationship with Merkel could be unpopular if the SPD favors creating a fighting, rather than a harmonious, coalition.
This need not be a bad thing, though. Some critics feel that the CDU is overdue for a leadership change, after 12 years with Merkel at the helm. The 2017 election marked the first time that she was heckled on the campaign trail. A new poll from newspaper Die Welt showed that 46 percent of Germans wish that Merkel would resign. Even within the CDU, Merkel’s party isn’t uniformly behind her. According to Bloomberg’s Arne Delfs, it’s mostly her critics inside the party who are wary of further coalition-blending with the SPD—and, as political scientist Ulrich Sarcinelli put it, those members are trying to lay the groundwork for a “post-Merkel era.” Unlike most German leaders, including her own predecessor, though, Merkel hasn’t groomed an obvious successor, so finding a replacement would be both difficult and, perhaps, embarrassing.
Adebahr noted that while Merkel losing power is “not imminent,” he said that “it’s really open to what price the SPD is going to ask for in the coalition and what price the CDU/CSU is willing to pay.” More likely than demand that Merkel leave, Adebahr said that he can see the SPD requesting new elections in two years, or using Merkel’s position as a sort of compromise in exchange for a domestic policy win. Essentially, “nothing is sacred or set in stone.”
While coalition talks continue behind closed doors, the world spins on—or tries to. The European system has received major reform proposals from French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, which some consider the biggest challenge for 2018, but they can’t move forward without Germany’s formal involvement. Not getting a say in European affairs also means that some EU budgeting also is at stake, which could influence subsidies as far into the future as 2021-2027. But the German government can’t make any of those formal decisions until it’s, well, a real government again.
Even if it’s not in a democratic crisis, Germany’s current situation offers another example of this era’s unusually difficult version of politics as usual. With no good options, the coalition talks won’t end in too much celebration, even when a government is finalized. Instead, observers are likely to see the consequences of this political limbo through 2018 and, potentially, for years to come.