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Wounded and weakened, Merkel starts coalition talks with awkward partners

Chancellor Angela Merkel, damaged by poor election results, will from Wednesday seek to forge an unlikely governing coalition from a motley crew of parties that span the political spectrum.

Wounded and weakened, Merkel starts coalition talks with awkward partners
Photo: DPA

Merkel's conservatives, who won a September 24th vote without a clear majority, will hold exploratory talks with the liberal and pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) from 12pm  and then the left-leaning and environmentalist Greens from 4.30pm.

To avoid a breakdown that would force new elections, all sides will in coming weeks have to hammer out tough compromises on thorny topics from immigration to EU reform and climate policy.

If the initial talks Wednesday go well, all sides will meet jointly on Friday to launch negotiations that could form a government by perhaps January in the biggest EU economy.

READ MORE: These will be the likely conflict points in building a Jamaica coalition

The delicate negotiations come as Merkel, who has long ruled as a presidential-style chancellor, is increasingly described as a lame-duck leader in her final term, past the zenith of her power.

Critics are snapping at the heels of the veteran leader for delivering the worst poll result since 1949 for her Christian Democrats (CDU), followed by a state election loss last Sunday.

The usually pro-Merkel Bild daily condemned her insistence that she bore no blame for her party's defeat in Lower Saxony state, charging that she and her CDU “refuse to see what they've done wrong”.

“Up until two years ago Merkel appeared untouchable,” said the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily.

“That aura of invincibility is now gone. Her power, too, is on the wane. If the CDU had any kind of challenger waiting in the wings, Merkel would have reason to worry.”

'Massive hurdles'

If trouble is brewing in Merkel's party, her more conservative Bavarian allies the CSU are in open disarray, fearing another poll drubbing in state elections next year.

Having long railed against Merkel's decision to allow in more than one million asylum seekers since 2015, the CSU has signalled a sharp shift to the right to win back voters from the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The CSU's Alexander Dobrindt said Sunday's Austria election win of right-wing candidate Sebastian Kurz showed that the CDU/CSU must “position ourselves as a conservative force in these negotiations”.

Such talk only heightens distrust with the Greens, a party that emerged out of the 1960s and 70s protest movement against the Vietnam war and nuclear weapons, and which favours a multicultural society that welcomes refugees.

Greens leader Jürgen Trittin pointed to growing right-wing populist tendencies in the CDU/CSU bloc and warned that their hardline demands on the refugee issue would present “massive hurdles”.

Dobrindt, for his part, days ago warned that his party would tolerate no leftist “nonsense” from the Greens.

'Power crumbling'

The other partner in the coalition talks, the FDP, are an easier fit, having previously served with the conservatives for lengthy stretches, until they humiliatingly crashed out of the Bundestag at the last election in 2013.

Its youthful leader Christian Lindner, who led the party back into the Bundestag, has presented his own tough demands as he eyes the powerful finance ministry.

On the eve of the talks, Lindner even cautioned Merkel to refrain from any bold moves at the EU level, especially if it cost German taxpayers, before a new government is formed.

“I expect that Merkel … makes it clear that her government is only performing a caretaker role,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“Germany is currently not in a position to take decisions.”

Given the competing interests, and weeks of haggling over posts and policy ahead, news site Spiegel Online predicted that “with a bit of luck, Germany may have a new government by January.”

“Germany is experiencing a strange phenomenon,” said the commentary.

“A new coalition is being negotiated by parties who don't really want it, while the aura and the power of the former and future Chancellor Angela Merkel is crumbling.”

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EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Compared to many other countries, October 3rd is a relatively new nationwide holiday, marking 32 years since German reunification. Aaron Burnett explains the background to it and why it's celebrated on this particular date.

EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany's national holiday

Independence Day in the United States dates all the way back to 1776. Canada Day, celebrated on July 1st, goes back to 1867. France’s Bastille Day on July 14th commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

Compared to those national holidays, Germany’s October 3rd is fairly recent, having only been around since 1990.

October 3rd – or Tag der Deutschen Einheit – marks the date that the former West and East Germany officially became one country again, after being divided since the end of WWII. In 2022 it’s celebrated on a Monday, meaning many people will get a long weekend. 

Between 1945 and 1949, the country was split into four occupation zones – held by the Americans, British, French, and the then Soviets. In 1949 the Soviet zone became the communist East Germany – or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), while the rest of the country became the West German Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD).

The Bundesrepublik continues today, but now with the five eastern federal states, plus East Berlin, that were formerly in the DDR.

Why October 3rd and not November 9th?

Less than a year before official reunification on October 3rd, 1990, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th, 1989.

At first glance, November 9th might seem a better day to commemorate as a national day.

Growing up in Canada, my Gelsenkirchen-born Oma used to talk about the Berlin Wall falling with a slight waver in her voice – and sometimes even tears – decades after it crumbled before her eyes on her television screen.

November 9th, 1989 is remembered by many Germans as the happiest day in the history of the country, but the anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall is not observed as a national holiday.

‘It was the happiest day in German history,’ she told me at the time. ‘People were just so amazed at seeing that and no one really thought it would actually happen and guck mal – there it was. It was very emotional at the time and I guess I still am too,’ she would say.

READ ALSO: ‘There was a human tide moving’: Berliner remembers crossing the Wall

For Oma and many other German-Canadians I grew up around, Unity Day felt a little less momentous than November 9th. To them, October 3rd was an important day to observe, but conjured up a few less emotions.

‘November 9th suddenly made the dream of having a unified Germany again seem possible,’ my teacher at Calgary’s German-Canadian Club told me years ago. ‘By the time it was actually official, it just seemed like the final step of something that had been going on for a while already.’

To my Oma, my teacher, and others I grew up around who remembered that time – German reunification seemed inevitable within days of the Wall falling. But it wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. Even after the Wall fell, the DDR and BRD remained separate countries at first.

The months between November 9th, 1989 and October 3rd, 1990 were momentous – and saw several additional events that would pave the way for reunification.

On March 18th, 1990, the DDR would hold its first – and only – free and democratic elections. Won by the East German Christian Democrats, their leader Lothar de Maiziere served as GDR Premier until reunification on October 3rd.

Lothar de Maiziere, the first and only democratically elected leader of East Germany, at a German reunification celebration on October 3rd, 2020.

In Spring 1990, Bonn and Berlin agreed to convert the East German Ostmark – which was practically worthless at the time – to the West German Deutschmark on a largely 1 for 1 basis, with most salaries, prices, and savings being converted straight over.

Finally, the process for legal reunification took months, with the signing of an economic and currency union, the reconstituting of the five eastern federal states that had been abolished in communist times, the official reunification treaty, and the treaty that saw the WWII allies renounce all rights and responsibilities in Germany.

READ ALSO: What unity means to eastern Germans

At the stroke of midnight on October 3rd, 1990 – a reunified Germany became a fully sovereign state for the first time since WWII. That was thanks in large part to both political will and legal work in the months immediately following the Wall’s fall.

Although it seems so normal now, reunification was never guaranteed, which is part of why October 3rd enjoys and deserves its own special commemoration.

November 9th – German history’s double edge

The other major reason why October 3rd serves as Germany’s national day instead of November 9th is that November 9th, while associated with the happy elation of witnessing the Berlin Wall crumble, is also linked to many other momentous – and often solemn – historical commemorations.

On November 9th, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated. Within hours, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party both declared the Weimar Republic and a ‘free, socialist republic,’ respectively. It would serve as the first sign of political instability that eventually allowed the Nazis to take power.

On November 9th, 1923, Adolf Hitler attempted a coup that started in a Munich beer hall. He was arrested and wrote Mein Kampf during his time in jail.

November 9th was not chosen as Germany’s national day partly because of the solemn commemorations attached to it, such as Kristallnacht on November 9th, 1938.

And on November 9th, 1938, Jewish businesses and synagogues were violently targeted during Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” At least 90 Jews were killed and 30,000 deported.

As happy as November 9th, 1989 was, commemorating it as Germany’s national day would be problematic given the other solemn observances attached to it, which is also part of why October 3rd was chosen.

READ ALSO: Why November 9th is a fateful day in German history

What days does October 3rd replace?

Both East and West Germany had national holidays before reunification. The DDR observed ‘Republic Day’ on October 7th, the anniversary of its founding in 1949. Before 1990, the BRD commemorated June 17th, or the anniversary of the East German uprising in 1953.

October 3rd replaced both days as the national day of celebration. 

Where can you celebrate it?

Unity Day is a national holiday with celebrations readily found around the country.

In Bavaria, Oktoberfest remains open until October 3rd partly to mark the occasion. In Berlin, festivities are readily found around the Brandenburg Gate.

However, each year, a major city plays host to official celebrations and the Unity Day Bürgerfest, or ‘Citizen’s Festival.’ The host city is in the federal state presiding over the Bundesrat – Germany’s upper legislative chamber – that particular year.

For 2022, Erfurt – the state capital of Thuringia – is the host, and next year will see Hamburg take over hosting duties.

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