German politics – steady course in uncharted waters?

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  • October 16, 2017

By Martin Lodge, carr

The 2017 federal elections in Germany highlight the fragmented nature of German society. Beneath the appearance of stability under Chancellor Merkel, the tectonics of electoral politics seem to have shifted under the challenges of the Euro and refugee crises. While the vote shares for the two main parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) are at historically low levels, another major source of concern is the rise of the right-extreme ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD). Germany – internationally regarded as the exceptional island of electoral and economic stability only a few days ago – seems not that different from other countries anymore.

But what does the result mean for the forthcoming years, for German and for wider European politics?

Turning to German politics first, few major developments can be any time soon. As the different parties digest the election results of the regional election in Lower Saxony, initial coalition talks will be announced. In the meantime, parties will seek to mark their territory in public, while leaving sufficient room for manoeuvre for the inevitable compromises in the coalition agreement and over cabinet portfolios.

The SPD has indicated that it will not consider joining any government and will therefore lead the opposition in the Bundestag. Whether this position will be sustainable over time remains to be seen, should the other coalition option fall by the wayside. For the moment, this leaves Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats with the sole option to form a coalition with the Liberal FDP and the Greens in a so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition (signifying the different political parties’ colours). Outside local government, ‘Jamaica’ type coalition arrangements have been trialled only twice before, coming undone in the Saarland (‘Saarmaica’) after two years, but functioning relatively smoothly in Schleswig Holstein. However, that arrangement is only of very recent origin.

For some, it is very difficult to see how economic liberals, green environmentalist and conservatives can easily work together at the federal level, especially after a campaign in which the Greens and the FDP directly attacked each other. Attempts at joint working will become even more difficult given the position of the Bavarian CSU which suffered disproportionate losses and faces its own Land election next year. Any agreement at the federal level is therefore likely to be most affected by an election-nervy Bavarian coalition partner with a keen eye on outmuscling the AfD on issues relating to migration and highlighting that it managed to impose its imprint on the coalition agreement. The regional elections in Lower Saxony are likely to cause further concern. Some will argue that they suggest insufficient understanding by the CDU politicians in power of the need to take the federal election results seriously. FDP and Green politicians will look with some concern at their electoral prospects. Under such conditions, it is difficult to see how a coalition can function for more than a few years before it will come crushing down on internal disagreements, whether it is due to declining electoral popularity in forthcoming Land elections, divided party memberships (especially in the case of the Greens), concern about leadership succession (especially in the cases of the CDU and the CSU) or dissent over key electoral promises.

At the same time, a Jamaica coalition might work if it calibrates its priorities carefully around the different parties’ core interests. There are areas of overlap among these parties, whether it is about tax reform, environmental and agricultural policies, and the need to enhance digital (and other) infrastructures. Agreement on a points-based immigration system is likely to pitch Liberals and Greens against a divided larger CDU/CSU coalition partner. Coalition conflicts are most likely to emerge over the means to achieve certain goals than the goals themselves. In other words, Jamaica may just work if it can overcome squabbling and the various anxieties, for example, that the smaller coalition parties will be dominated by the Christian Democrats on the one side, or the fear that the Christian Democrats will be held at ransom by their coalition parties on the other.

But what about Europe? Anyone hoping that the final months of 2017 would be defined by major EU initiatives is likely to be disappointed, especially if coalition negotiations will take until late December, if not longer. Stabilising the European Union will remain at the heart of German policy, especially, in the context of external challenges, (Ukraine, Brexit, Trump, increasing backsliding on EU commitments by fellow member states, such as Hungary and Poland, Turkey). None of the Jamaica coalition partners disagrees with the view that the European Union and its stability remains at the heart of Germany’s interests.

Despite this broad agreement, the disagreements about the appropriate way forward point to some major tensions in the future. Plans to launch major initiatives to advance European integration at large (as reflected in Juncker’s recent speech at the European Parliament) or deepening the Eurozone by advocating redistributive mechanisms will face resistance by German Liberals and conservative Christian Democrats. They will also be attacked by the AfD. However, there is agreement on the importance of deepening European-level solutions, especially in the areas of migration, in defence or civil protection. And whether resistance to a ‘transfer union’ cannot be circumvented by carefully linking tight financial control with more redistribution in the Eurozone is also an open question.

German politics is moving into uncharted waters with a potential Jamaica coalition in federal government and with a party of the extreme right, the AfD, in the federal parliament. That party is most likely to make headlines for infighting between its ‘moderate’ and radical wings and attempts at scandalising political debate. For some, therefore, new coalition politics and rise of right-extreme parties in parliament highlight a substantial weakening of the ingredients that have ensured that Germany played the role as stabiliser in European affairs in the past (i.e. stable coalitions at the centre, widespread resistance to right-extreme discourse).

There is however also another view that points to broad stability in outlook even when party systems seem to be fragmenting: The inbuilt constitutional mechanisms that emphasise stability and compromise as well as the commitment to seek European solutions means that the broad trajectories in German policy, especially European policy will continue. This stability on the one hand and more complex politics at the national level on the other might encourage continued ‘muddling through’ rather than grand visions at the EU-level, but it nevertheless involves a pragmatic approach to European-wide challenges.

 

An earlier version of this blog was published here . The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

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