Berlin Blues; Whither Germany as Angela Merkel finally exits?

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By John J. Metzler

Angela Merkel is leaving the political stage.

After sixteen years as Germany’s Chancellor presiding over amazing growth and stability, her Christian Democratic coalition CDU/CSU hardly gained from her political coattails in the recent national elections. Rather her Christian Democrats suffered their biggest electoral drubbing since 1949. Part of the outcome rests with an uninspiring national campaign and a lackluster candidate.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center. / Video Image

Germany’s parliamentary elections ended with an impasse; the center left Social Democrats (SPD) gaining a 25.7 percent slice of the vote followed narrowly by the ruling Christian Democrats with 24.1 percent. And these are historically the two largest parties!

Neither side could seriously claim a mandate.

Stated another way, the socialists gained 206 seats and the Christian Democrats 196. Yet 367 seats are necessary to gain a majority in the Parliament (Bundestag) in Berlin. Fully 76 percent of the electorate voted. So let the coalition games begin!

Political coalitions are hardly unusual in parliamentary systems; it’s all about deal making and political horse trading to reach the magic majority number. In Germany the coalition process is based on the party colors. The Social Democrats are Red, the Christian Democrats are Black, the Greens are Green and the business-friendly Free Democrats are Yellow.

Then come a variety of combinations. Shuffle the cards and deal.

The Traffic Light coalition sees the SPD, the Greens and the FDP, a Red, Green, Yellow government. Between 1998 and 2005 Berlin had an SPD/Green coalition; this is likely again.

The Jamaica Flag coalition would see the Christian Democrats, do a deal with the pro-business FDP, and the Greens. Black, Green, Yellow. This brings 196 CDU/CSU seats, 92 FDP and 118 Green seats to form a government.

Grand Coalition between the SPD and the CDU/CSU. This is actually the current government combination and is not likely to return.

In the midst of this post-election quandary, the good news is Germany remains a stable and healthy democracy in the center of Europe.

The bad news remains that most pundits see coalition talks dragging on until a government is formed by Christmas though I feel the deal may happen sooner given the unpopularity of the CDU candidate even within his own party!

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz appears ready to form a left-wing government in Berlin.  Nonetheless, Scholz campaigned by walking a narrow tightrope of praising Angela Merkel’s leadership but not her political party. Now that the election’s over, Olaf Scholz told the left-leaning Der Spiegel magazine that the people “want a new beginning and a progressive government.”  While he has tried to tread a middle line, his SPD party faces significant pushback from the strident young socialists (Jusos) within.

Germany’s political parties across the spectrum largely appeal to the political center; neither to ideological outliers nor strong political isms.  The Left party, scion of the old East Germany communist party fared poorly with 39 seats and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) a largely anti-Immigrant party did better with 83 seats.  Both are too politically toxic to join any coalition.

Gone are the 1980’s debates over NATO defense policies which energized the left-wing Social Democrats and environmental policies which nurtured the Greens. Instead, the elections centered on the size of the social welfare state, Climate policy, the overdue digitalization of Germany and the country’s role in the European Union.

What does this mean for transatlantic relations, especially with the USA? Germany’s role in NATO has been significant as recently as its notable contribution along with Britain, France and Italy to military forces in Afghanistan. Now after America’s chaotic pullout of Afghanistan, there’s an uneasy reappraisal in Europe concerning the role and reliability of the U.S. as a defense partner.

Moreover, how will an SPD government, historically inclined to doing Russian business deals, proceed in relations with Moscow? Germany and Russia are commercially tied together by an interlocking series of gas pipelines on which the energy supply of Central Europe flows. Interestingly, the Greens are opposed to closer ties with the People’s Republic of China given its human rights record. That could pose a wild card for any government in Berlin which has been exceedingly business friendly to Beijing.

Angela Merkel’s tenure presided over half of Germany’s post-unification era since 1990. Now that she is going into the sunset, she has earned her place as one of the great and consequential German post-war Chancellors along with Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Schmidt, and Helmut Kohl, her political mentor.  Merkel’s shadow and legacy will be difficult to fill.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]