Beyond the Election: Merkel’s Coalition Challenges

The victory party at Christian Democratic Union (CDU) headquarters ― the Konrad Adenauer Haus ― was euphoric after the first projections on the evening of September 22. Angela Merkel seemed to be on the verge of equaling the accomplishment of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1957 ― capturing an absolute majority for her party. That she missed that record by a razor’s edge did nothing to subtract from her electoral success.

Her electoral success ran parallel to the disastrous loss of her preferred coalition partner, the FDP, which was summarily dismissed from the Bundestag for the first time in its six and a half decades of continuous participation in government. It also opposed the relatively weak performance of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which lost even more ground to Merkel’s party. This election also saw the Green Party lose ground among voters. In fact, the only party which could justifiably celebrate on election night was the Left Party, which managed to become the third strongest presence in parliament. Meanwhile, a party, which did not qualify to sit in parliament, but impacted the results of the election ― the Alternative for Germany (AfD) ― picked up almost as much support as the FDP by mobilizing the uncertainty of the Germans worried about the euro.

Merkel’s magic consisted of convincing a record number of voters to give her a unique platform to govern Germany for a third term as Chancellor. For many, it was a gesture of trust in her leadership. For others, it was a lack of same in her opponent Peer Steinbrück. That lack of trust manifested in the results for the FDP as well as for the Greens and, in fact, even the sudden emergence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Yet, according to the polls, the majority of Germans want their beloved Chancellor to govern with the Social Democrats for the next four years. That is what will likely happen in a few weeks, when coalition negotiations come to an end. How that coalition will be shaped around competing interests and priorities will be the story of compromise and consensus. There are those on both sides of the negotiations who will clench their teeth in the process. As both the SPD and the FDP can attest, being a coalition partner with Merkel can end badly.

That would be equally true ― if not more so ― in negotiations between Merkel and the Greens, although that path is going to be a dead-end if for no other reason than the fact that Merkel will not have much of a Green leadership with whom she can negotiate.

And, here is where the limits of Merkel’s magic begins. The Chancellor needs a partner to govern and there are plenty of barriers to forging a sustainable coalition. This is certainly the case with the Greens, but also with the Social Democrats. Most of those sticking points are made of domestic politics ― taxes, minimum wage proposals, public investment policies, and a particularly abrasive set of issues surrounding energy policies. As far as euro issues go, it is possible that a coalition with the Social Democrats might push Merkel in the direction of increased support for the euro area, although the results for the AfD are a warning to Merkel that she needs to do a much better job of explaining her economic policies and, more specifically, how Germany has been able to profit from the euro zone initiative.

Of course, looking at the overall campaign, one is consistently reminded that the Chancellor’s style is one of caution and careful study before deciding her course. Her campaign posters showed only her hands in a peaceful position suggesting that the Republic is in good hands with Merkel.

The voters agreed in large numbers. But, that same style will shape her negotiations with the two coalition candidates. That can lead to a long discussion, perhaps longer than the last time Merkel negotiated with the SPD in 2005. That took over two months to hammer out. This time? It depends on how hard the SPD pushed its own agenda.

Is there another way out of this phase of building a coalition? In theory, a majority could coalesce if the SPD and the Greens agreed to invite the Left Party to join a coalition. However, Germany is not prepared for that combination yet. The Left Party needs to evolve further to make it a viable candidate ― if it ever does.

Throughout the campaign, issues that go further afield from Europe received virtually no attention. There was no discussion of Syria or Iran or other hot spots around the globe. All politics was primarily local. Germany continues to be an economic giant with limited strategic focus beyond Europe for now. This election did not change that. That is perhaps for another moment yet to come.

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.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.