GroKo 3.0: Of Options, Obstacles, and Opportunities
Now that the white smoke has billowed from the SPD chimney to bless the GroKo arrangement, leaders in Berlin are ready to get on with the business of governing. There are still a few cabinet positions in transition on the SPD side but otherwise, the wait is over—now it’s time to get to work.
Yet it is also still time to take stock of what caused the delay and what will continue to shadow this coalition as it moves ahead.
Up until now, moving the post-election political chess pieces around the Berlin board was a relatively transparent and predictable process. The winning majority was usually without surprises, telegraphed in advance and ready to share the spoils of power.
Not this time.
The beating taken by the two largest parties—the center-right CDU and the center-left SPD—was dramatic. It reduced their leverage to form a government and then, after stumbling through a series of efforts to reach a coalition agreement, they wound up with the same combination as prior to last September’s election.
That illustrated two things: the larger parties are no longer as large, and the entire party landscape is in flux. Both the brand and the content of political parties are shapeshifting, with as much internal conflict within party lines as across them. No party has exemplified that better than the Social Democrats in the argument over joining Angela Merkel in another coalition government. But shifts and strife within Merkel’s own party are also visible as the Christian Democrats struggle to come to grips with a post-Merkel period…whenever that time comes.
But shifts and strife within Merkel’s own party are also visible as the Christian Democrats struggle to come to grips with a post-Merkel period…whenever that time comes.
The second revelation during these past five months was that of a less powerful chancellor to start a fourth term. No surprise perhaps. One way of describing it is watching Merkel, known affectionately as “Mutti” become “Grammutti” after the elections, with many immediately wondering who will inherit her crown.
Yet the fact is that no one knows the answer to that question with any certainty. Meanwhile, the leadership question within the SPD lingers, without any clear direction. The CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, has made a change, but that leadership remains to be tested in the September elections in Bavaria. The Greens have just elected two new leaders who face challenges in showing their ability to sustain the Greens in opposition in Berlin. That leaves the Left Party, which has no viable option of forging a coalition government with another party, and the newly-elected Alternative for Germany (AfD), the largest opposition party in the Bundestag but a pariah among other parties. That said, the AfD has a large platform to raise their eclectic voices and contribute shock and awe from the lectern.
And then there are the liberal Free Democrats. They have mobilized themselves effectively around one person—Christian Lindner—in exiting any coalition talks and are now trying to redefine themselves beyond being a coalition destroyer or facilitator. The coming phase before the next elections will put that experiment to a test.
Put all this together and result is a high degree of uncertainty about how the next three or four years are going to unfold. Whether this new coalition holds until 2021 is an open question. But that is less serious an issue than is the changing composition of political identities in all of the seven political parties represented in the largest parliament in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany.
What those parties stand for in 2018 is in question. Whether they each can connect with the mix of concerns, worries, and even anger in a viable message to an uncertain if not skeptical public is also up for debate. It is not only a question of what is presented, but why and by whom.
But they are all now about to meet those challenges, even as Germans watch what is happening around them. Italy’s election last Sunday, for example, showed a pronounced trend toward fragmentation despite that country’s predilection for forming new governments (indeed, it does so more frequently than anywhere else on the continent).
Germany is not Italy, but a good many countries in Europe are plagued with a similar question: where do voters go when their traditional party affiliations seem less binding and threats and uncertainties seem less manageable? We have seen how millions of voters in Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, the UK, and the U.S. have responded. Political leaders who manipulate those uncertainties and fears are only going to escalate them at a cost to the health of the country itself.
The voters have to be given a sense that GroKo 3.0 is more than a rebranding of the past two.
Chancellor Merkel and her cabinet will be sworn in next week. As this coalition in Berlin gets started, it will have to find answers to offer voters different and better reasons why this time it is different. The voters have to be given a sense that GroKo 3.0 is more than a rebranding of the past two. There are plenty of challenges to face and an opportunity to engage with citizens to generate new priorities with more enthusiasm and faith that perceived problems are actually opportunities. It is not a hard agenda to define, whether it be domestic reforms or foreign policy challenges. But it has to be enmeshed in a sense of opportunity, not obstacles; not back-to-the-future thinking, but thinking about the future.
Chancellor Merkel has to be thinking about the final term of two of her predecessors: Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. Neither grabbed the chance in his fourth term to inspire, to generate enthusiasm. How will Merkel’s fourth term end? She has got to be thinking about that as well.