After a record breaking period of coalition negotiations, Angela Merkel finally starts her third term as Chancellor this week. Her government’s success will depend on the ability of three parties – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), and Social Democratic Party (SPD)– to steer a course through difficult domestic political challenges, foreign policy demands, and intra party rivalries. It may not be a very easy path; neither the Social Democrats, nor Merkel’s CDU/CSU team wanted this outcome after the September 22 elections. Merkel wanted a renewed coalition with the Free Democrats – now no longer represented in the Bundestag. The Social Democrats wanted to govern with the Greens, who managed to make themselves the smaller of the two opposition parties in the Parliament over the next four years.
The result is a coalition based on necessity and designed to be only one term – assuming it holds together for the full four years.
The picture of the cabinet reflects this coalition of compromises. Despite the fact that the Social Democrats received only 25 percent of the vote on September 22 – vs the CDU/CSU’s combined 41 percent – the division of cabinet posts was split between the two sides. Chancellor Merkel held on to the most important slot – the Finance Ministry and Wolfgang Schaueble in it. That gives her control in large measure over the European Union portfolio and the guard on fiscal parameters. The CDU occupies the defense, interior, health, and education ministries, while the CSU rules transportation, agriculture, and development ministries. That covers a wide spectrum of issues of direct importance to domestic constituencies. The Defense Ministry, to be led by Ursula von der Leyen – the first female to fill this post – will have to deal with continuing challenges in Afghanistan, as well as those issues surrounding budget constraints and reforms left behind by her predecessor, who is now interior minister.
Von der Leyen represents the most surprising nomination among the ministers and is, of course, seen by many as potential future Chancellor candidate. Those who have followed the fates of former defense ministers will quickly point out that the experience can be not only a career booster, but also a career killer. Expectations of the new defense minister may be hesitant but at the same time open to potential success.
It is clear that the Chancellor knew exactly what she was doing, when she recommended Dr. von der Leyen to take over this challenging spot.
The SPD has come out with significant advantage in it’s cabinet positions. Apart from having the vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, in the position of economics minister, now known as minister for Economics and Energy, the SPD also has control of the foreign ministry, environmental ministry, the labor ministry, justice and the family ministry – giving the Social Democrats ample opportunity to deal with highly charged domestic issues. Positioning the popular Frank Walter Steinmeier as foreign minister is also a plus for the SPD, although control over foreign policy remains largely in the purview of Chancellor Merkel. That said, there was little contention in writing the coalition section on foreign policy directions and priorities. Steinmeier and Merkel along with the new defense minister should be operating off of a common script.
Whether this third “grand” coalition is going to be able to tackle high profile challenges or remain at the managing of problems level remains to be seen. With 80 percent control of the Bundestag, one might see options for the former after reading the coalition agreement. Yet the agreement itself uses phrases that suggest what the coalition intends to explore, test, or try. That may not be surprising given the enormous range of interests and stake holders involved in crafting that blueprint.
In the end, realities will impose themselves on the best laid intentions. Some economists are skeptical whether there will be enough money to pay for all the promises made. Others don’t buy the assumptions about projections of growth to generate sufficient resources without raising taxes.
And, there are the so called known and unknown unknowns in the coming four years which no coalition agreement can foresee.
One thing is clear, Chancellor Merkel is at the zenith of her political career with this third term. She is in complete control of her political party and also in control of this coalition. When the results of the election on September 22 – as symmetric as they were – become a factor in implementing hard-nosed coalition agreements is an outstanding question. On the other hand, both sides of this coalition share liabilities in trying to deliver on their promises to the voters. And, both have an interest in seeing this coalition as a temporary one, even as they still need to prove to the voters that they both have the best interests of the Republic at heart. That is always the balance politicians seek in trying to do the doable while also trying to get reelected. Merkel has now managed to do that three times. Only two Chancellors before her have done that – and they did it four times. This Chancellor will need to focus on the next four years. And, that will surely be enough for now.
Meet each of the incoming cabinet ministers of the new Grand Coalition government.