Last month, German voters delivered a message to the ruling CDu/CSU and SDP coalition, “we’re tired of unending immigration.” Since being reelected in 2013 as Chancellor, Merkel ignored voters concerns over open borders and ceding sovereignty to the EU. This partly led to the rise of third parties last month like the AfD, a party with Neo-Nazi ties and based in the former Soviet controlled East, the free market Free Democratic Party (FDP), Communist Left and Greens made far-reaching gains.
The election last month marked the first time the CDU/CSU had achieved a combined less than 60 percent of the vote since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. Despite a humming economy and low rates of unemployment the flavor of the election was growing voter dissatisfaction with immigration and national borders. Indeed, if not for the CSU in Bavaria Merkel’s party likely would have failed to garner 33 percent and there are worries among the CSU they will be wiped out in next year’s state elections unless they run rightward on immigration.
Since the election Merkel has had to thread a very thin needle to get her plurality of the vote leading party to a majority coalition. The SPD, the last coalition partner, finished with a disappointing 20 percent and swore it would not partner with the CDU/CSU. The Lefts were too far, well, to the left. And Merkel has made clear she believes the AfD is full of Nazi lovers.
So, that left the Greens and the FDP. This was always a difficult proposition as the Greens want a more heavily regulated economy than the CDU/CSU and definitely the FDP. In a move that was stunning only to the economic elites of the world the FDP pulled out of negotiations.
In response, speaking to ARD, a public broadcaster, she said she preferred new elections to forming a minority government. The political calculus is easy to see. Merkel, despite leading the largest party in Parliament, is plagued by internal divisions. Additionally. forming an alliance with the Greens is virtually impossible without another party backing her more free-market ideals.
After the UK’s 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, elite world leadership turned to Germany. Euro-nationally, after British Prime Minister Teresa May was embarrassed at the polls over the summer, Germany and France were expected to tag-team the island nation to give concessions. Now, all three nations come to the table seriously wounded. The minority Tory government is only in power due to their alliance with a regional conservative party (Democratic Unionist Party) which is giving the Tories “supply and confidence.”
France is led by a brand new centrist party and leader (Macron) who has limited governing experience. After massive victories in the Presidential run-off and Parliamentary elections the party is mired in worse than Trump levels of public approval. As for Germany, well, just look at where Merkel is now.
New elections might rescue Merkel from her doldrums or it just might result in her party’s internal divisions being laid bare. The SPD, now fully distancing itself from their coalition with Merkel, is sure to make the next campaign about her leadership. Meanwhile, expect the Greens, FDP and Left to pull to pull fringe voters to their camps. If the CSU splits from the CPD in major ways it is game over and an entire new era of German politics, one not seen since the end of the Cold War, would begin. Good luck getting a majority government ever elected in that.
Since WWII, German politics has largely been change through consensus. What was once four major parties has become seven and consensus is all but a dirty word. Merkel has changed from a conservative legislator to a centrist deal maker in her twelve years of leadership and as a result some debate over the role and future of the country has been stifled. Especially on cultural issues where Germans rarely went.
Unlike election results in France, the UK, or even Eastern European nations, the German election results were notable because they were purely cultural. Their was no scandal driving the election, the economy was cruising (as mentioned above) and unemployment hovered at 3.7 percent. But, even so, under the surface German voters were craving policy change.
Okay, maybe it was not so under the surface. Back in January, a survey found 40 percent of Germans wanted Merkel to resign due to her immigration policies. Her own party was fighting her over it. While polls showed her ahead in the run-up to elections the lead never held steady as the SPD first tied and fell behind and then the lead held with an unimpressive plurality.
Indeed, the ideological divide growing in Germany could be seen in the negotiations. The CSU’s lead negotiator called the Greens plans to shut down all nuclear power plants “absurd.” But, it was the FDP signalling it would not follow the SPD in years past and sees it political identity be consumed in a coalition. Speaking for the party, the FDP’s Chief said, “We are unwilling and unable to take responsibility for the spirit of the negotiation results,” Mr. Lindner announced. “We would be forced to abandon convictions we have spent years fighting for.”
Merkel likely won’t change course. She cannot. She’s a creature of the economic elite and can’t simply pivot on a dime when the EU is turning to her to lead their economic vision in the Trump era. Former German leaders are courting political leaders and the SPD did agree to at least consider another coalition with her (say good-bye to political relevance if they do). Bur, for Merkel, her problem is the same. She is in the twilight of her reign and witnessing the dawn of a new era of German politics. One which may see German voters deliver her many messages on her way out!