A new government for Germany? Close but not quite...

February 7, 2018 - by Oliver Schmidtke, Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria

After months of uncertainty, a failed attempt to form a broad coalition that included the Green Party, and a controversial push towards a renewal of the Grand Coalition, Germany has moved a decisive step closer to forming a new government. On Wednesday, after weeks of tough negotiations, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) agreed on a coalition contract and the distribution of ministerial responsibility among the parties of the Grand Coalition.

Some of the central elements of the agreement have become known to the public over the past weeks but indeed another 24-hour marathon of negotiation to complete putting together the program for the next four years of CDU/CSU and SPD government under the chancellorship of Angela Merkel. The completion of the coalition agreement gives a first indication of how this iteration of the Grand Coalition might be different from its predecessor: As it currently stands, the Social Democrats (SPD) will take control of six ministries, among them critical ones like Labour and Social Affairs, Finance, and Foreign Affairs, The fact that the SPD is slated to take over the Minister of Finance is likely a signal that the future German government  will loosen its austere spending policy and invest some of the record surplus in the public coffers on public initiatives and social programs. Another news that surprised the German public in the wake of announcing the agreement is that the current leader of the SPD, Martin Schulz, will step down in March (probably staying in the new government as foreign minister) and be replaced by former Labour and Social Affairs Minister, Andrea Naples. She would be the first woman to lead the Social Democrats in the 155-year history of the party.

The announcement of the successful completion of the coalition negotiations will likely end months of uncertainty in German politics. There has been growing impatience domestically regarding the failure to form a government after last September's elections. Similarly there is a great sigh of relief palpable in Europe where French President Macron is waiting for his German partners in order to push his ambitious agenda for the European Union.

Yet, there still is one decisive hurdle for the Grand Coalition before it can embark on a renewed four-year term. The 460,000 members of the SPD still have to agree to the coalition agreement (the results of this consultation are expected to be on March 1st). There is a massive opposition within the SPD to join the Christian Democrats under Chancellor Merkel again. At a recent party congress, only 56% of the delegates agreed to the coalition negotiations. The main concern is that another four years in the Grand Coalition would be politically disastrous for the SPD. Already in 2017 the Social Democrats only received a bit more than 20% of the popular vote, the worst showing of this party since 1949. Given the great reservation in particular of the leftist wing of the SPD, the new iteration of the Grand Coalition is not a done deal yet.

The divisive force of migration politics and the end of the coalition negotiations in Germany   

November 20, 2017 - by Oliver Schmidtke, Centre for Gobal Studies, University of Victoria 

To the great surprise of the German public, the attempts to form a coalition government have failed. Last night, the Liberal Party pulled out of the negotiations putting an end to the effort to bring together the free-market liberals, the environmentalist Greens and the two Christian Democratic parties under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Next to the controversial phasing out of coal-burning power plants, the main sticking point in the negotiation seems to have been how to handle the ongoing challenge of governing immigration and refugees in Germany. While the Green party was adamantly in favour of allowing family members of refugees to move to Germany, both the Bavarian CSU and the liberal FDP demanded strict restrictions on family unification.

The current stalemate in German politics has been shaped in a twofold way by the thorny question of migration. First, it was the rise of the so called Alternative for Germany (AfD) that, for the first time in the postwar history of the country, has succeeded in being elected to federal parliament. The 13.3% support for the national populists indicates how Germany’s response to the ‘refugee crisis’ over the past years has antagonized the German electorate. The AfD could tap into growing anti-foreigner sentiments and the anger over the lack of a genuine opposition during the time in which Germany was governed by the Grand Coalition.

The issue of migration also had a decisive effect on the negotiations to put together the four-party coalition under Chancellor Merkel’s guidance. Not at least for electoral reasons, the Bavarian CSU and the Liberals opted for a reversal of Germany’s liberal refugee policy. While the right-wing AFD is shunned in parliament, its political ideology has already changed the political culture in Germany. As was evident in the recent election in Austria it is difficult for centre-right parties to resists the lure of populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.