It can have surprised no one that German Chancellor Angela Merkel failed to form a coalition government. Last September’s splintered national vote all but ensured it. (See “After the German Vote Nothing Looks Stable,” The American Conservative, September 28, 2017.) Even if her remarkable political talents had given her immediate success in coalition building, it could not have lasted long. Now she has a Hobson’s choice: the dubious prospect of minority government or a new vote. Forecasting either way would challenge the talents of a magical wizard, much less mere mortals. Whichever of the many possibilities emerges, however, Germany likely will still lack the direction it and Europe need and clearly crave.
Merkel’s efforts to form a coalition never had much chance. Electoral gains by the anti-immigrant, anti-establishment Alternative for Deutschland Party (AfD) did great damage to the parties that had formed Germany’s previous government. The chancellor’s own party, itself a coalition between the center right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the more conservative Bavarian-based Christian Social Union (CSU), saw its share of seats in the Bundestag fall from 41.5 percent to barely 33. Her former coalition partner, the center left Social Democratic Party (SDP), saw its representation fall from 25.7 percent to 20.5. Licking its wounds the SDP refused to consider another coalition. Even if it had agreed, the coalition would have had to govern from a weak majority.
So Merkel found herself trying to assemble a coalition among opposites. Her negotiations initially included the extremely left leaning and literally named Party of the Left, the environmentally concerned Greens, and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). Even if her formidable political skills had managed to cobble together a joint effort from this disparate group, it could not have lasted long. It was the FDP that finally imposed reality on the situation by walking away, its chairman, Christian Lindner saying as he did so that the group was riddled with “countless contradictions” that even Merkel could not bridge.
At this point, the chancellor could try minority government. Though various German states have functioned well under minority governments, it would be something new at the national level, at least in the post-war period. The option is hardly likely to work. Merkel’s party has only a weak plurality. If it worked at all, it could hardly provide the leadership that a clearly divided nation and Europe needs. Chances are, such a minority government would lose a vote, and not too soon after it launched, leaving Germany, after only a brief hiatus, back in the position it faces today.
If, after her meeting with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier set for this Monday, Germany schedules another election, the field of possibilities widens. Few possibilities, however, point to a forceful effective government. The polls say that a new vote would come out much as things did last September. Given polling’s track record, there is little reason to rely too heavily on these conclusions. If, however, they are correct, then the mess that exists today would simply return. Germany would look increasingly like France did in the 1950s, at least politically.
There is reason, however, to look for the vote to reshuffle the pack. September’s big gainer, Alternative for Deutschland, has suffered some splintering and resignations in the weeks since the election, enough perhaps to cost it votes. Still, the best Merkel could reasonably hope for is that the votes lost by AfD go to her own party or her former coalition partner, the SDP. Then perhaps she could reconstitute the old coalition and bring the country a measure of stability. Such a result, though welcome in some respects, would nonetheless leave Germany with a caretaker government instead of one that could give it the direction it clearly craves and Europe needs.