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'There is nothing grand about this coalition'

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Gabriel, Merkel and Seehofer (l to r) signed the coalition deal on Monday. Photo: DPA
09:15 CET+01:00
Professor Michael Wohlgemuth, director of think tank Open Europe Berlin, looks back on the last four months since Germany’s election campaign began and argues there are no great expectations of the “grand coalition”.

Germany is getting ready for Christmas and it is also a time for celebration in the festive bubble of the Berlin political classes.

On Sunday, Chancellor Merkel presented her new cabinet which will be sworn in on Tuesday and Germany will finally have a new government.

Democracy takes time – which is not bad, but this year was unusual. The former centre-right government stopped operating in early August and went on its summer holidays.

In September, the country saw three weeks of campaigning for what some cynics (I include myself among them) described as the most boring federal elections in German post-war history.

September 22nd however produced an exciting result - a popular vote for the centre-right which nevertheless created a majority of seats on the left.

But since the far-left party “Die Linke” was regarded as a pariah by the Social Democrats (SPD) who were clearly outperformed by Merkel’s Christian Democrats, it was up to Merkel to forge a coalition with either the Green Party or the SPD.

In the end, it turned out that another “grand coalition” was the only workable solution. But then, it took until the end of November for the two big parties to negotiate 185 pages of a most verbose and mostly vague coalition treaty.

And this was not the end. The SPD then had to ask its members to accept another “grand coalition”. The result came in on Saturday with an overwhelming 76 percent of SPD members accepting their leadership’s deal with the conservatives. (It was a rather fitting figure as the guidelines of the new “grand coalition” also contain around 76 percent of the SPD’s demands.)

This was the first time that members of one party were not only asked to vote in a general election but also to decide after the elections whether a government should be formed or not.

The SPD membership of fewer than half a million people, despite their party clearly losing the election, was thus deciding the future of around 82 million citizens. And foreigners who could not vote in the general election were allowed to vote as SPD members.

Some observers, including a few legal experts, found this disturbing, but it was also an example of direct democracy.

After all, the SPD has as much to lose in a “grand coalition” as it did last time from 2005 to 2009 when most of the credit for handling the economic crisis was given to Merkel as the “boss”. Social Democrats could not convince their constituencies that “change” was needed.

But one of the not so grand consequences of the “grand coalition” or “GroKo” - which was named German word of the year - is that there will be no real opposition left in both houses of parliament.

In the Bundestag, 504 out of a total of 631 seats will be members of “GroKo”. The opposition led by Die Linke had to ask for guarantees of parliamentary minority rights (such as initiating a commission of inquiry) which legally it would not have.

Another not so grand consequence is that the new cabinet list had to allow for many considerations to create a politically-correct balance between the top representatives of the three parties, in addition to the usual male-female, protestant-catholic, East-West balance.

As a result, we now have a labour minister who never worked in a profession (outside of her party organization) and a minister for defense who has never been near the army.

Of course a “grand coalition” could do grand things. And there are enough grand challenges ahead for them to get stuck into - the cumbersome German tax-system, the consequences of a rapidly ageing population, Germany’s ill-conceived energy policy (Energiewende).

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Looking at the coalition treaty, however, reveals that these great challenges – not to mention the future of the EU and the Eurozone – have not really been addressed.

Rather, both partners seemed to have added their domestic wish-lists – from minimum wages and early retirement to highway tolls – hoping that all these Christmas presents can somehow be financed without increasing taxes.

The agreement pencils in spending rises of €23 billion, which economists warn is not manageable without future tax rises. Merkel and her new government, however, insist it is.

For the German on the street, the mere formation of the “grand coalition” after three months of political inertia and uncertainty is reason for great relief but it is no reason for grand expectations.

READ MORE: Why the coalition deal matters to non-Germans

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