What will Germany look like after the next election?

Angela Merkel being sworn in as Federal Chancellor. Photo: Bundesregierung/Steins

Last Thursday this newspaper came out with a lead story about European countries having problems producing viable governments. The article was entitled “Minority governments ‘à la mode’ in Europe but can they last long?” It seems conformist Germany answers this question in the negative. According to an opinion poll published this week and reported by BBC, 54% of the Germans want the ‘grand coalition’ to go ahead, while one in three believe it won’t stick. But is it possible for the Christian parties and the socialists to govern Germany together again? Let’s dig into it.

This is an effort to soundly secure the next federal government on a strong parliamentary majority, shaped by the country’s two major political groupings; the allied center-right Christian parties CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union and her Bavarian sister Christian Social Union) and the center-left socialists of SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany). The two groupings control between them 399 seats in the federal parliament, the Bundestag (246 the Christian parties and 153 the Socialists), in a house of 709 deputies. It’s a very comfortable majority.

However, the difficult political challenges will be fought outside the parliament, in the next days or probably weeks at the negotiations table to agree the terms of the ‘grand coalition’. It’s not the first time that the Christians and the Socialists are forming such a government. During the three parliamentary periods of the past twelve years, CDU/CSU and SPD co-governed for eight years, in two periods 2005-2009 and 2013-2017. On both occasions the agreement ‘book’ contained tens of chapters and hundreds of pages covering all major and less important issues.

Merkel again?

To be noted, all along the past twelve years Angela Merkel confidently held the government controls from her position in the Federal Chancellery. Now, it’s not like that it seems. There are strong voices claiming Merkel has to go, probably in the middle of the current four year parliamentary period. Her image has been marred, after the Christian parties lost one million voters in the 24 September elections. She also failed in her first attempt to form a coalition government. This failure cost her dearly.

A costly breakdown

Before the end of last year, it proved impossible for Merkel to convince both the environment minded leadership of the Green Party and the pro-business neoliberal Free Democrats of FDP, to form a tripartite administration. Christian Lindner, the leader of the last party, a young looking middle aged narcissist, broke out of the talks, destroying Merkel’s option to form the ‘Jamaica’ coalition, named after the colors of the three political parties involved (black, green and yellow).

Now it’s Merkel’s last chance to form a majority government, this time in ‘grand coalition’ with the socialists. However, this looks not only difficult, but rather politically damaging for both sides. Still, both the Christian parties and the socialists appear to prefer it, than calling a new legislative election or letting Merkel form a minority government, supported only by the two Christians. This week CDU/CSU and the SPD are to decide the agenda of the negotiations and possibly strike a general agreement, regarding the hot issues of immigration, taxation, the reform of the European Union and changes in social insurance coverage, with healthcare prominent in this facet.

An impossible agreement?

In all and every one of those policy questions, their differences are huge. The conservatives want less taxation for the wealthy, no reunification of the immigrant families, not a more powerful European Union and vie for greater involvement of the private sector in healthcare. In theory the socialists opt exactly for the opposite alternatives. There is, though, a neoliberal infection of the SPD leadership, routed in the 2005 split of SPD.

Back then, a number of left wing members of the party led by Oskar Lafontaine left SPD, denouncing the changes of labor protection laws, as proposed by the leadership of Gerhard Schröder. Since then the Socialists not only have governed with Merkel’s conservatives for eight years as a junior partner, but have promoted deep labor market changes, favoring flexibility and slashing traditional labor protection rules.

Neoliberal socialists

This said, Martin Schulz the incumbent leader of SPD, will have no problem discussing issues like less taxation of the wealthy and more private sector implication in healthcare with Merkel . Already – according to the Handelsblatt Global on line news service – the SPD has agreed with the CDU/CSU “to abandon the Germany’s climate target for 2020, arguing that it’s virtually impossible to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% compared to 1990 levels”.

Yet, as in 2005 a good part of prominent SPD members are lining up against the new partnership with the conservatives. They have formed a faction under the name of NoGroKo (no grand coalition). Their main argument is that the party will lose a lot from a new ‘grand coalition’ with the conservatives, and it may even end up as a minor political force after the next election. Obviously, the reason for that is the abandonment of SPD’s social references and audience. This has been a heated discussion within socialist parties and has led to strong conflicts, schisms and political shrinkage in many European countries like Spain, Greece, Italy, France and elsewhere.

Fading socialists

In this process the critical turning point was not only the cooperation of the center-left with the center-right parties, which proved politically more detrimental for the former; the political developments in Europe for the last twenty years have witnessed the endorsement by the left leaning parties of the neoliberal policies. At the same time, anti-labor laws, pro-financial markets measures and income inequality increasing policies have opened the way to harlequin and extreme right wing populists. The extreme right is already in a government coalition in Austria. Isn’t this an alarming sign for Germany?

 

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