Germans are known for wanting order around them—it’s understandable, given past centuries of disorder. But since its inception in 1949, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany has been an illustration of stability. Over the past nearly 70 years, eight chancellors have governed Germany and the transfer of power has been relatively seamless from one coalition government to another. Until now.
There is some serious gambling going on in Berlin—some holding cards, others folding. But mixed into this game is a lot of bluffing.
The current negotiations among the four parties trying to find common ground after the September 24 elections broke down over “irreconcilable differences,” as proclaimed by the leader of the Free Democrats (FDP), Christian Lindner.
There is a massive game of finger-pointing going on right now in Berlin. But beyond that, it is hard to see how this log jam is going to be solved. While the president of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had called for the four parties to come to their senses and work out a coalition platform, it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. Indeed, it looked unlikely from the start.
Merkel had a vested interest in making ends meet as she has just been elected chancellor for the fourth time. But her own party was filled with many who thought that three terms were enough. The Greens were more open to the so-called Jamaica arrangement—even if there were contradictory signals coming out of its own caucus. The Bavarian-based CSU had seemingly come around to the coalition as well after battling over the issues, especially refugee policy.
In the end, it was the FDP that dramatically pulled the plug at a press conference in which they pronounced that they were no longer interested in talks because—as party leader Christian Lindner put it—“It is better not to govern than to govern wrongly.”
It was an awkward moment. By announcing that the parties were unable to reach an agreement in such a theatrical fashion, the FDP has assumed the role of chief spoiler. Christian Lindner might believe that his party can wait out this crisis. But it was four years ago that the FDP was ejected from the Bundestag for the first time in its history. While the party came back strongly this time, the volatile nature of the political arena remains a warning sign not to take the future for granted.
The political straws that broke the back of the talks were largely about domestic politics. But the implication of an uncertain German political future makes serious foreign policy ripples, particularly in Europe. France has been waiting for the Germans to get closure on their own political leadership in order to pursue a stronger Franco-German partnership. The lingering uncertainty surrounding Brexit requires a strong German presence in those negotiations. There are continuing challenges facing Europe as it tries to pursue a deepening of its security policies. And many other remaining global crises are not going to wait until Germany gets around to choosing its next coalition government.
In the meantime, the current administration governing Germany is going to stay in place. Angela Merkel remains chancellor until a new one is chosen, and the current cabinet officers also retain their roles. But the Social Democrats have stated that they are not interested in coming to the rescue in another coalition under Chancellor Merkel. The SPD is in a repair mode of re-thinking its own identity after a searing loss in the last elections.
That would leave Merkel faced with another possibility. She could stand for re-election in the Bundestag—and likely be reappointed—and then nominate a cabinet herself without a formal coalition. It would be a risky path as there would be the constant threat of not finding support for legislation in the Bundestag. She might reach a minority coalition with the Greens and the CSU, but that would also be an uncertain path as the antipathy between those two groups was and is extremely pronounced. Germany has never faced the need for a minority government at the federal level. Whether it could manage one now is uncertain.
That leaves new elections to solve the governance problem. That would be plausible no earlier than the spring of 2018. And it is not clear whether the results of the election would create greater opportunities for a coalition than is the case at present. It is also not a given that Angela Merkel would remain chancellor.
One more joker in that mix is the presence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing party which now enjoys over 90 seats in the current parliament. Whether it would gain even more strength in a new election is not clear. But what is interesting to consider is that if the SPD was to actually change its course and form a coalition with Chancellor Merkel, the largest opposition force in the Bundestag would be the AfD.
So Germany is in limbo. It is not so much a constitutional crisis as it is a political poker game whose players are unsure of their cards. As Kenny Rogers put it about gambling, you never count your money when you’re sitting at the table—you wait ‘til the dealing is done. And then you find out if you have outplayed or outbluffed your partners.
The dealing isn’t done yet in Berlin.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.