Days after the collapse of the coalition talks in Berlin German Chancellor Angela Merkel has found a not-so-unlikely saviour in the form of the leadership of the SPD, Germany’s biggest ‘opposition’ party and her partner in the outgoing coalition.
After the SPD’s dismal showing in the September parliamentary elections – when the SPD’s share of the vote was a paltry 20.5% – the SPD’s leadership led by the party’s leader Martin Schulz vowed that the SPD would not enter into any further coalition with Angela Merkel.
The idea was that the SDP, having been badly damaged by its all-too-close association with Merkel in two coalition governments, urgently needed to distance itself from Merkel so that it could start to reconnect with its increasingly angry and alienated working class base.
In addition SPD leader Martin Schulz said it would be wrong for the SPD to forge a new coalition with Merkel after the SPD’s previous coalition with Merkel was electorally hammered by German voters in the September election.
That was a clear and straightforward position, easily understandable by the SPD’s membership and electoral base, and one which makes total political sense.
However following the collapse of the talks between Merkel and the FDP and the Greens to form a so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ the SPD at the insistence of President Steinmeier (previously one of the SPD’s most senior leaders) reversed itself. Following a tense eight hour discussion on Thursday it agreed to open talks with Merkel to look for ways to support her government. There is now even some talk of the SPD going into coalition with her again.
What lies behind this truly extraordinary reversal?
The SPD has come under extreme pressure from the German political establishment to save Merkel. This is because of fears that a new election would result in a further increase in support for the anti-establishment AfD.
This appears to be a prospect that Germany’s political establishment finds too horrible to contemplate, so once it became clear that negotiations to form a ‘Jamaica coalition’ were going nowhere the SPD came under intense pressure to reverse its stance so as to prevent the threatened election from taking place.
Over and above this, there is also a measure of truth in the frequent claim that the entire political ethos of postwar Germany is one which requires political parties to look for compromises. A conflict between parties which results in fresh elections may be a commonplace in many European countries. In postwar Germany it has never happened previously, and the German business community in particular was alarmed by it, and made known its wish that it be resolved quickly without new elections being called.
However the SPD was not just strong-armed by the German political establishment into reversing its position. On the contrary it is clear that this was also the urgent wish of most of its most senior leaders.
The cause of the alarm is a series of opinion polls which show that since the September election Merkel’s popularity and that of the two big establishment parties – the CDU/CSU bloc and the SPD – is continuing to crash.
Not only is Merkel’s own popularity draining away, but the opinion polls suggest that in the event of a new election the CDU’s/CSU’s support might easily fall below 30% (in the September election it was 33%) whilst the SPD’s support might fall below 20%.
This seems to have spooked many senior SPD officials and MPs, who terrified of losing their seats in the Bundestag pressed for talks with Merkel to prevent an election from taking place.
The fact that the SPD is making decisions based on such calculations shows why it is going to go on losing support.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May called an election in April this year there was also pressure on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to block the election. The reasoning was that if the election happened Theresa May would triumph and Labour would be crushed.
Corbyn spurned these cowardly counsels and instead welcomed the election. For that however he came under strong criticism from precisely the same sort of people in Britain’s Labour Party as those in Germany’s SPD who are anxious to avoid an election in Germany now. See for example this extraordinary article by the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, blasting Corbyn for his ‘ineptitude’ in agreeing to an election which would result in ‘catastrophe’ for his party.
In the event and against all expectations an energetic and self-confident Corbyn stormed if not to victory then to a very close second place, increasing the Labour Party’s share of the vote from 30% to 40%, and depriving Theresa May of her majority.
The events of the last week show that Germany’s SPD has no equivalent to Jeremy Corbyn.
On the contrary it has become as assimilated into Germany’s neoliberal political establishment as is Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU. In truth it is politically speaking Germany’s neoliberal establishment along with Angela Merkel and her CDU/CSU.
Given that it is precisely that neoliberal establishment that German voters are now rejecting that all but guarantees that the SPD will continue to lose support, and by talking about propping up Merkel the SPD is simply giving its working class base further reason to desert it.
It is still not a fully foregone conclusion that the SPD’s will forge an arrangement with Merkel. The party’s grassroots – closer to German voters and more loyal to the party’s traditions than its leadership – are believed to be unhappy and will have a vote over whatever arrangement is finally agreed. In a sign of the unease the party’s youth wing has already said that it will expect the talks with Merkel to be broken off if there is no agreement by Christmas.
Assuming an agreement is however reached, it should be clear that it will be a case of trading short-term ‘stability’ for long-term crisis.
Angela Merkel is quite simply the wrong person to continue to be German Chancellor.
This has been my consistent view ever since I first expressed it back in 2014. More to the point, it is a view which is now starting to become mainstream.
Consider for example this article by Roger Boyes in the London Times, with its comments like these
Germans have become too comfortable with the rule of Angela Merkel, so cosy in their governing compact, so gemütlich that they failed to recognise they have a Merkel problem. For the past 12 years the chancellor has ducked big choices about Germany’s role in the world, about the need for change, and now the country is paying the price……
The great hope that accompanied the election of Merkel in 2005 was that she would usher Germany into the modern world in a non-threatening, non-Thatcherite way. Instead, without a guiding idea, her various coalition governments have been about crisis management: the global financial breakdown, the eurozone in disarray, Greece hurtling towards bankruptcy, an increasingly aggressive Vladimir Putin, the flood of refugees from apparently insoluble wars. She was never under-employed but along the way she lost the plot.
Since her political convictions were never laid out clearly, she felt free to steal the political clothes of her various coalition partners, the Free Democrats and the Social Democrats, claiming them as her own. She even dressed herself up as a Green by suddenly renouncing nuclear power after the Fukushima accident in 2011, thus keeping options open for a future alliance with the party.
The corrosive effect of leadership without a compass has become clear over the past weeks. Neither the Free Democrats nor the Social Democrats trust her as a partner; they both bled votes after being in coalition with her. All parties are feuding furiously with each other, making a nonsense of the chancellor’s claim to be a consensus politician. Her Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union is alarmed by her drift leftwards and by her misjudgment in opening up Germany’s borders to a million migrants and refugees. The CSU faces a regional election next year. In public it swears loyalty to Merkel; in private it knows that the association with Merkel is likely to be toxic, driving even more voters towards the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Apart from the (inevitable) reference to the “increasingly aggressive Vladimir Putin” there is not a word here with which I disagree.
More to the point, as the draining away of Merkel’s popularity shows, this is also increasingly becoming the view of Germany voters.
Propping up an increasingly unpopular Chancellor who is now obviously past her sell-by date is a certain recipe for trouble, and is not politically speaking sustainable.
As I said in my discussion of the state of Germany which I wrote just before the election, what Germany needs is not more of the same – which is all it is ever going to get from Merkel – but strong and purposeful leadership, which can start to address Germany’s mounting problems.
These are likely to become increasingly apparent within the next few years or even months, as evidence mounts that the German economy is dangerously overheating.
The German people sense this, which is why in September’s election Merkel’s coalition lost so much support.
Presenting the German people with the same coalition just weeks after that coalition lost so much support in the September election is in political and electoral terms pure folly. Martin Schultz for once was saying it right when he said just a week ago that it would be totally the wrong thing to do
The mere fact that this folly is even being discussed is a sign of something else. For the first time since the establishment of the Bundesrepublik Germany’s political class is running scared of Germany’s voters. Instead of calling an election – the standard way to resolve a political crisis in a parliamentary democracy – Germany’s political class is instead engaging in a shabby stitch-up because it is frightened of how Germany’s voters might vote in an election.
That of course is not something which is unknown in other countries. In Germany however it is something new. That means that in German political terms an important line has been crossed.
Running scared in that way will of course cede the position of being the only true opposition parties in the Bundestag to the AfD and to the leftist Die Linke. Inevitably that will also cede the political initiative to them, ensuring that their support will continue to increase. It speaks volumes about the state of German politics and about the weakness of Germany’s traditional ‘establishment’ parties that the only party in the Bundestag which had the courage and understanding of the situation to call on Merkel to resign once the ‘Jamaica coalition’ talks collapsed was the AfD.
If a stitch-up is put together to allow Merkel to remain Chancellor, it will start to fray very quickly.
Merkel’s authority is gone, and so very quickly will what is left of her popularity, especially if predictions of a looming crisis in the economy come true.
Meanwhile the SPD will continue to lose support as it props up the unpopular government of a discredited and unwanted Chancellor.
Sooner or later the whole thing will fall apart, but in a much messier and more dangerous way than would be the case if an election were called now.
This however is the dismal scenario Germany’s political class is presenting to the German people.