The end of the old politics in Germany

The collapse of coalition talks points to a deeper crisis.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics World

When talks to form a three-way coalition government in Germany collapsed after the Free Democratic Party (FDP) walked out of negotiations, chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of a ‘somehow historic day’.

It’s a fair assessment. With Merkel’s Christian Democrats’ (CDU) current coalition partner, the SPD (Social Democratic Party), also refusing to join a new government (at least for the time being), German politics seems deadlocked. As Die Welt put it, ‘For the first time since 1949 the coalition of the willing has not materialised… This poker game will awaken dangerous powers.’ The Berliner Zeitung warns of the ‘immense damage to democracy’.

Yet, as significant as the failure to form a government is, it is important to remember that this current crisis is a consequence of the historic defeat of the two big parties, the CDU and the SPD, in September’s federal elections. The old politics is crumbling, and so far there is no new politics to take its place.

‘Jamaica has become an embarrassing farce’, was the apt subtitle of a newspaper report published just hours before the talks failed. ‘Jamaica’ was the colourful name given to the now failed coalition between Merkel’s CDU, the Green Party and the FDP, due to their party colours. As a relatively new constellation (this three-fold coalition exists in only one federal state), it was presented as an alternative to the grand coalition, comprising the big two of the CDU and the SPD, which has ruled over the past four years. However, as representatives of the CDU, FDP and the Green Party repeatedly met over the past few weeks to discuss what amounted to a list of seemingly endless demands and details, it became clear that this was not a new beginning at all.

Though nothing much has been lost with the collapse of talks, nothing much has been gained during this process either. ‘The discussion partners have no common vision for modernisation of the country or a common basis of trust’, said Christian Lindner, the FDP leader, on Monday morning. And what were they discussing? That there are not enough tax reductions (but they are not calling for fundamental tax reform); a phased abolition of the solidarity tax (established after reunification to support the east); and the question of how many family members refugees should be allowed to bring into Germany. These were the main points of contention. Are these really the issues on which Germany’s future depends? Would a common vision on these issues really have amounted to a new vision for Germany? It seems unlikely. And for this Merkel must shoulder some of the blame. As Jochen Arntz noted in the Berliner Zeitung, with Merkel heading up the negotiations, comparatively unimportant concerns related to immigration were allowed to dominate the coalition talks right from the start.

The breakdown of the talks is seen by many as a flight from responsibility. And there is something to that. With some nostalgia, the Berliner Zeitung ran a report on past coalition negotiations, such as those of 1963 (when the CDU and SPD formed a grand coalition), or those of 1969 (when the SPD and FDP got together), or even those of 1998 (when the SPD and the Greens took over).

What’s striking is that back then, the political differences between the partners were far greater than they are today. Given the harsh rhetoric that accompanied coalition debates in the 1960s, the FDP’s complaint last Sunday that it had been presented as being anti-European (meaning anti-Euro and EU) – which it felt was a terrible insult – seems almost childish. In 1963, for example, the CDU accused the SPD of being unpatriotic and a danger to Germany’s security. But, unlike today, then the rival parties drew strength from their sense of serving a larger cause. As the SPD’s Willy Brandt said at the time, his aim was to pave the way for a new foreign policy and a more liberal interior policy. To achieve this, he formed a coalition with his biggest opponent, the CDU, and coined his famous slogan ‘Mehr demokratie wagen‘ (‘Dare more democracy’). This proved so impactful on the nation that even today’s sad and clueless SPD still likes to pose with a Brandt photo at every possible occasion.

Many are looking for someone to blame for the collapse of the negotiations. The Greens, who were probably the keenest to get back into government and were willing to compromise on nearly everything (even accepting the deeply hated cap on immigration), have hit out at the FDP. ‘Lindner chose his own brand of populist agitation over political responsibility’, tweeted one Green Party member. Increasingly Merkel is being criticised, too. ‘One end is here, the other is nearing’, stated the Tagesspiegel, adding that Merkel and her style of politics have failed. ‘The FDP’s petulance, and the Social Democrats’ unwillingness to open up talks about another “grand coalition” with the CDU, are directly linked to the Merkel question’, said the FAZ newspaper: ‘Both parties suffered existential setbacks after going into government with a chancellor who has become an expert at adopting and coopting other parties’ key policies.’

It could well be that this latest crisis marks the beginning of the end of Merkel as chancellor. But she isn’t the only one who has pursued a purely technocratic politics. The crisis of the mainstream parties goes deeper than Merkel. The hapless SPD candidate Martin Schulz and the FDP’s new political tactician Lindner have both been keen to present their parties as the victims of a vicious and shrewd chancellor (Schulz even accused Merkel of undermining democracy). And Merkel has certainly contributed to the current political paralysis. But her political rivals’ attempts to present themselves as her victims comes across as pathetic.

The established parties now have several options. The first one is to call for new elections. But, as the Süddeutsche newspaper points out, alluding to the anti-immigrant AfD, ‘the danger that those forces that are working against a liberal, democratic and open Germany will come out even stronger is very big’. Such is the establishment fear of the electorate.

The other option is for the CDU to bring the SPD back into coalition for another four years. The chances of this are higher than some think, since the (unelected) German president, Frank Walter-Steinmeier, who has now been given free hand to try to sort out the crisis, is himself a prominent former SPD minister. Yet if the two parties that came out of the last election as the biggest losers continue as if it is business as usual, this, too, would pose problems. It would increase public cynicism towards the established parties.

The final option would be a minority government of CDU and Greens, but this has been ruled out by Merkel, who argued that it would make her too dependent on gaining the parliamentary support of the (anti-establishment and largely populist) AfD. A government which, under Merkel, has always preferred finding compromises behind closed doors will rightly fear too many parliamentary debates.

This crisis certainly presents difficulties for the established parties. And so it should. The FDP’s exit has exploded the myth of a stable and boring Germany; it has shown that technocracy and democracy don’t go well together; and it has prompted a necessary shake-up of German politics. What is needed now is new thinking, and maybe even new parties.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is head of the board of the liberal thinktank Freiblickinstitut e.V., which has published the Freedom Manifesto. She is also the organiser of the Berlin Salon.

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