Merkel’s coalition conundrum

Hemmed in by an ascendant Green party and facing life without a natural political partner, could the woes of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives help boost right-wing populists in Germany?

Merkel’s coalition conundrum
Photo: DPA

The economy is booming, unemployment has sunk to post-reunification lows, but Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are having a tremendously dismal year.

They’ve been turfed out of power after state elections in Hamburg and Baden-Württemberg, and have now suffered the ignominy of finishing in third place behind the Greens in Bremen on Sunday. It was the first time the CDU has ever trailed the environmentalist party at the state level – but it doesn’t look likely to be the last, as the Greens set to do extremely well in Berlin’s upcoming election in September.

To make matters worse, the conservatives’ tradition coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), has all but imploded. The party failed to win seats in several state legislatures this year, and despite recently shaking up its leadership, the FDP continues to wallow in national opinion polls.

The surging Green Party, by contrast, is now being touted as a serious challenger to the country’s traditional leading parties, or Volksparteien, the Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

But Germany’s proportional voting system makes single-party rule the exception at the state level and virtually impossible nationally, meaning the CDU is faced with dwindling prospects for obtaining and staying in power. Merkel, in particular, would seem to have very few palatable options.

Her party has shed much of its right-wing edge during her time as chancellor, but the defeat in conservative heartland Baden-Württemberg this March would suggest this is no longer a recipe for success.

However, should the conservatives now tack to the right, abandoning Merkel’s carefully crafted centrist course, they would all but condemn themselves to the opposition after the 2013 parliamentary election.

The best they could probably hope for would be to force the Social Democrats into another loveless “grand coalition” under conservative leadership – as Merkel governed for her first term from 2005 to 2009.

After a failed coalition experiment with the CDU in Hamburg, the Greens have made it clear they see little common ground with the conservatives. And although Merkel’s has said she would not chase after the Greens’ affections, she has already tossed away her party’s pro-nuclear power stance for political expediency.

Cleaving to the centre ground, with a nod to the environmentalists, however, could open up a new threat on the CDU’s right flank. So far, Germany has avoided the rise of a right-wing populist movement seen elsewhere in Europe.

If Merkel’s conservatives are forced to cater to left-wing parties, it could potentially pave the way for an anti-immigrant and Muslim-bashing party mimicking those in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden.

The unsavoury populists from the regional Rhineland-based party Pro Köln certainly make no secret of their national ambitions, as they attempt to present a more electable xenophobic alternative to their far-right brethren like the neo-Nazi NPD party.

It’s not a pretty thought: Increasing support for the immigrant-friendly Greens might end up giving Germany its very own Geert Wilders or Jörg Haider. At the same time, Merkel’s conservatives and their Bavarian CSU allies could be tempted to fish for far-right votes by catering to people’s baser instincts.

Fortunately Germany already has the best antidote there is to xenophobia and intolerance – a booming economy.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.