Here’s why it is becoming ever harder to create stable German governments

If and when a German government is finally welded together, it will be more or less half a year since the election. With populist parties waiting in the wings, the future of German politics as we know it looks ever less certain.

Here's why it is becoming ever harder to create stable German governments
Photo: DPA

On Wednesday afternoon, a mere 136 days after the election, Angela Merkel was able to announce that she had reached a deal with the Social Democrats to form a new grand coalition government. The deal still isn’t sealed though – we will now have to wait three weeks before it's put to a vote of the SPD membership.

Even then, there are serious questions over whether the coalition will hold together. Wednesday's agreement was met by immediate grumbling inside the CDU, with one MP calling it a “miserable” result. 

Still, it seems Merkel has managed to pee into the tank to keep the motor of German politics running for a few more miles. But it is also clear that she has lost her map. Where she is heading, there is neither petrol nor water.

If you look at how long it has taken to build new governments over the past two decades, a pattern emerges. Between 1994 and 2002 it took around 30 days to swear in new governments, as negotiations took place either between two parties on the right or two parties on the left. But in 2005, 65 days were needed to form Merkel’s first grand coalition. In 2013, it took 86 days. This time we’re looking at closer to 200.

It is surely clear to everyone, including Merkel, that things can't go on like this. If they were to try a rerun in 2021 they would probably still be talking by the time the next election came around.

The problem is obvious. Every time the two old adversaries go into coalition together, they seem to become one another. The SPD vote through right-wing laws like the foreigner road toll, the CDU support the minimum wage. They have to – that's what the coalition deal commits them to. But in doing so they erode their grassroots support and make disgruntled voters at the fringes of the two Volksparteien (people's parties) easy pickings for populists.

The SPD have felt the brunt of voter anger hardest, due to the fact they have played second fiddle to Merkel's CDU. Since the turn of the millennium they have lost 10 million voters and last year they recorded their worst post-war result.

As the Social Democrats have sunk, the left-wing Die Linke and the ecologist Green party have seen their support bloom. Whereas the two parties had a combined support of 11.8 in 1998, last year they won a combined 18.1 percent.

For a while, it seemed like Merkel could put on SPD clothes and still convince her base that she was a conservative.

But the discontent was there. Sections of her conservative base were grumbling about immigration before the refugee crisis, with weekly Pegida demonstrations pulling in crowds of thousands. When Merkel decided to welcome Syrian refugees into Germany in 2015 – and at the same time suggested most Germans had only a superficial knowledge of Christianity – the backlash was furious. She went from being Mutti to a Volksverräter (traitor) in the blink of an eye.

The result was the emergence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party which placed itself as anti-Muslim and anti-refugee in order to exploit this anger. Before the refugee crisis, they were a fringe party – now they are set to become the official opposition.

The AfD have clearly been reading from Die Linke's playbook. It was remarkable to see how similarly the two parties reacted to the coalition deal.

Die Linke leader Sahra Wagenknecht told Die Zeit on Thursday that the SPD were no longer a left-wing party.

“I wish that the SPD would become a social democratic party again, then I would have a lot in common with them. But the current SPD is in the process of ruining itself,” she proclaimed. “They have been pursuing policies against the interests of their own voters.”

On the other side of the debate, AfD leader Alexander Gauland accused the CDU of becoming a social democratic party.

“All that remains of the CDU is an empty shell,” he said. “The CDU party has been given up entirely to make sure that Merkel could hold onto her power and so that the SPD would come on board.”

Of course, the reality is more complicated – the SPD wrestled legislation on the gender pay gap from the CDU in the last election, while the CDU held onto their cherished balanced budget. Meanwhile, the fact that the parties can govern together shows that there is a wide societal consensus on key issues like Europe. But that’s not the point; more and more voters just see SPD policies when they look at Merkel and only see CDU policies when they look at the SPD.

At the same time, the strategy employed by both major parties to try and stop the rot has failed. They have portrayed Die Linke and the AfD as resurrections of Germany's autocratic past and have broadly ruled out any kind of alliance with them at the federal level. But voters have shown again and again that they aren't listening to the dire warnings.

The result is an ever more fractured political system that is on the point of coming to a complete standstill.

History shows that the two major parties will lose even more support at the next election in 2021, making another grand coalition impossible. The most likely outcome will be that a Frau Wagenknecht or a Herr Gauland will be sitting at cabinet meetings – let's just hope they won't be at the head of the table.


What do Germans think of Merkel a year after her departure?

Angela Merkel left the German chancellery on December 8th, 2021 at the height of her global stature. Twelve months on, it is hard to find a more precipitous drop in popularity and prestige in modern European politics.

What do Germans think of Merkel a year after her departure?

The offices accorded to the former leader are in view of the Russian embassy, where since the Ukraine invasion in February Berliners regularly leave signs and flowers protesting the war.

Long called the world’s most powerful woman, Merkel these days has pulled back from the spotlight, working on her memoirs and enjoying the occasional television series, such as “The Crown”, which tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s turbulent decades on the throne.

But in many quarters the broad German support she once enjoyed as a staunch defender of Western liberal values has curdled.

“One year on, the world is in flames, Russia invaded Ukraine, gas and  petrol prices are through the roof and Germany fears the winter,” wrote Der Spiegel magazine’s Alexander Osang, a longtime Merkel confidant.

“Angela Merkel went from role model to culprit, from crisis-manager to crisis-causer.”

Invitation to Bucha

Germany’s first female chancellor has been accused of placating Russian President Vladimir Putin in the name of realpolitik, while deepening Germany’s energy dependence on Moscow — not least by backing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project even after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

READ ALSO: Merkel says no regrets over Germany’s Russia gas deals

Hedwig Richter, modern history professor at Munich’s Bundeswehr University, said Merkel‘s loss of standing had been “exceptional”, representing a generation of political failings.

“Amorality is not the same thing as realpolitik,” Richter told AFP.

“The governments of the last 16 years thought it was realistic to place values such as human rights and climate protection last in politics. But now reality is striking back.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has laid the blame at Merkel‘s feet, in particular for a decision at a 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest not to admit his country to the alliance.

In April, he offered her a barbed invitation to Bucha, the site of an alleged massacre of Ukrainian civilians, “to see what the policy of concessions to Russia has led to in 14 years”.

Looming energy shortages due to Russian retaliation for Western sanctions have also soured the mood against Merkel at home.

In the public debate, “Merkel was tied up with this war and certainly to blame for the missing gas”, said Nico Fried, who covered Merkel during all four of her terms, in Stern magazine.

“The question is what remains of Merkel after 16 years, whether her historical portrait is already fading before it was even really framed.”

‘Horribly neglected’

Just 23 percent of Germans would want Merkel back in power, according to a Civey institute poll in late November.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Are Germans questioning Merkel’s legacy?

In this file photo taken on November 10, 2021 then outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz attend a press conference to present the annual report of the German Council of Economic Experts (Wirtschaftsweise) in Berlin. (Photo by Kay Nietfeld / POOL / AFP)

Richter said Merkel had “great achievements” including allowing in more  than one million asylum seekers and standing as a beacon of “decency” and  “democratic duty” when strongmen like Putin and Donald Trump were on the march.

But she said two key miscalculations would cast a long shadow.

“Firstly, the inability of the (German) republic to defend itself. And because this is closely linked to the fossil-fuel dependence on Russia, it threw a spotlight on destruction of the planet,” she said.

“The Merkel governments horribly neglected both these issues.”

Merkel, 68, has mounted a tentative counter-offensive, arguing that she acted in good conscience given the facts on the ground at the time.

She said she tried to use Nord Stream 2 as a bargaining chip to ensure Putin respected the 2015 Minsk accords aimed at stopping the fighting in Ukraine.

Merkel told Fried she pledged to US President Joe Biden last year that if Russia invaded Ukraine, the pipeline deal would be scrapped — a threat her successor Olaf Scholz made good on days before the war began.

Osang noted the irony that “Putin of all people, whom she has known so well and long, with all his tricks, lies, bragging” had muddied her reputation.

One of Merkel‘s lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that it was “economic, more than democratic, deprivation” that led to the communist system’s collapse.

Osang said this had coloured her approach to trade with China and energy deals with Russia.

She said Scholz’s billions in spending to help Germans facing high gas prices were now justified.

“Not everyone is in a position to freeze for Ukraine,” she said.