Germany’s path towards new government fraught with dilemmas

Merkel and Steinbruck small.jpg

After losing out on her preferred coalition partners, Germany's newly re-elected chancellor, Angela Merkel, faces a number of hurdles in securing a power-sharing deal with rival left-leaning parties.

While Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won a resounding victory in Germany’s general elections on Sunday (22 September), further cementing her position as the country's unassailable leader, the results have paved the way for a period of instability as she faces the difficult task of building a coalition government with rival left-wing politicians.

Merkel will almost certainly remain as chancellor but she faces weeks of tough negotiations with either the Social Democrats, the second largest political party, or the Greens. 

Merkel's previous coalition partners have suffered heavily in the ballots. The Free Democratic Party (FDP), with which she formed the current government, failed to secure the 5% share of votes needed to enter the Bundestag, the German parliament.

“The results combine a great personal triumph with a political dilemma. Her party dominated the election, but she lost her favoured coalition partner and will be forced to work with one of the left-wing parties,” argues Douglas Elliot, a fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

With Merkel or not with Merkel

The poor performance of the FDP means that the Social Democrats and the Greens will be wary of forming a coalition with Merkel, say analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The Social Democrats feel that the last Grand Coalition [SPD-CDU] with Merkel from 2005 to 2009 lost them support from their core voters,” reads an ECFR blog, adding that the SPD may be more comfortable negotiating from a position of relative strength in leading the opposition.

“Merkel needs SPD support more than the SPD needs her," it says.

The same is true of the Greens, who have become soured by previous experiences in coalitions with the Christian Democrats, which they felt alienated the left-leaning base of their support.

“Being in coalition with the popular and adept Merkel means gaining partial responsibility for whatever goes wrong, without garnering much of the benefit from what goes right,” said Elliot.

The daily Spiegel Online reports that nobody in the SPD is looking forward to a pact with Merkel.

SPD leaders commenting the results were very cautious in discussing this option. Hannelore Kraft, the prime minister of North-Rhine Westphalia, who is now the main player in the party, said that deciding on a grand coalition would be very difficult for the SPD.

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD's chancellor candidate, repeatedly said during the campaign that he would not become a member of a Merkel cabinet, but he did not rule out taking on a leading party role,  possibly as SPD leader in the Bundestag.

According to political analyst Wolfgang Münchau, a grand coalition is now the most likely government to emerge from the election. The reason is that unlike the Greens, the SPD cannot afford another election, which could lead to an absolute majority for Merkel.

Furthermore, a coalition with the Greens would have difficulty passing legislation in the Bundesrat (the second legislative chamber after the Bundestag) as a CDU-Green government would not have a majority.

“The Social Democrats will likely end up accepting the poisoned chalice because German voters highly value stability and are unlikely to be happy if the other major party in Germany refuse to participate to form a government,” says Elliot.

Analysts contend that a grand coalition would be good news for Europe. Eurosceptics across the continent have been able to flourish for far too long because Merkel has rarely said where Germany stands on Europe, Judy Dempsey said in an op-ed on EURACTIV.

François Hollande, France’s Socialist president, had been hoping for a Social Democratic victory. But with Merkel now firmly in the driving seat, she and Hollande have little choice but to begin working closely together on European policy, Dempsey added.

In Germany’s most recent federal elections held on Sunday, 22 September 2013, almost seven million votes did not count as they were stopped by the five-percent-barring clause. For Democracy International this dramatic loss of votes is a reason to demand the abolition of thresholds that hinder the undistorted representation of the people be it at local, national or transnational level.

“The amount of almost seven million unrecognised votes in Germany’s federal elections is shocking. This number roughly equals the amount of eligible voters in Sweden and Austria, which are sovereign and independent countries of the EU. As the term representative democracy says, people’s votes must be reflected in the parliament proportionately, otherwise the votes are not equal” warns Gerald Häfner, chairperson of Democracy International.

The European Union’s economic and financial challenges left the bloc in no doubt that its most populous member state is also its most politically powerful.

On 22 September 2013, 62 million Germans were called to the polls to decide in a federal election whether that power remains within its current ruling conservative coalition led by incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), or whether to entrust it to the Social Democrats or a new coalition.

In the run up to the elections, Europe remained largely off the agenda, despite analysts concurring that a key factor in her unusual spell of popular support was due to her handling of the eurozone crisis. >> Read German elections 2013: Don’t mention Europe.

Subscribe to our newsletters