Germany: Fresh elections?

Coalition talks in Germany have collapsed, precipitating the press into "crisis" headlines.

"These failed coalition talks show that Germany is also facing its own crossroads. Economic success does not alleviate people's fear of a future in which refugees symbolize the uncertainties posed by a globalized world."

Ines Pohl, DW, 20 November 2017

This is not what was expected (and, to come completely clean, not what I forecast personally in the immediate aftermath of the election). Even when the deadline for the preliminary talks aimed at forming a 'Jamaica' coalition was passed last Thursday, the expectation was that agreement would be reached over the weekend. Instead, the leader of the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), Christian Lindner (pictured), pulled the plug on the four-party talks just before midnight last night.

In essence, the leader of the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU) and Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, now has four options as follows:

  • To try to persuade the FDP to come back to the table with her CDU, its Bavarian sister party the Christlich-Soziale Union in Bayern (CSU) and Die Grünen (the Greens);
  • To try to form a minority government, probably with the Greens;
  • To see if she can persuade her former coalition partner, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), to change its mind and come into a fresh grand coalition; or
  • To ask Germany's President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to call fresh elections which would likely be held in early 2018.

I think the third option, ie a fresh grand coalition, can effectively be ruled out. The SPD took a battering in the 24 September general election and is clearly determined to spend time in opposition to try to reestablish itself as a credible party of government.

The first option, ie persuading the FDP to come back to the table, cannot be totally ruled out, in my view. After all, and contrary to Mr Lindner's implication, the other three parties have all claimed since the breakdown that agreement was within reach. But it would seem to require a considerable volte-face on Mr Lindner's part.

A minority CDU/CSU/Greens government would be feasible (if not stable - and therefore unlikely to last the full four-year term). But, especially without the FDP pulling the balance around the table rightwards, it would likely require compromises by the CDU/CSU on immigration in particular and on the environment which would be hard for the Bavarians in particular to swallow. (On the other hand, without the FDP at the table compromises over tax, the third major sticking point, would probably be easier to reach.)

When Mrs Merkel meets Mr Steinmeyer this afternoon, as she has already announced she will, I therefore expect there to be a serious discussion between them about fresh elections. The two are former colleagues in government and (despite Mr Steinmeier's coming from the SPD) have a close personal relationship, which should facilitate their discussions. But 'simply' moving to fresh elections will not be any easy conclusion to come to given concern that this could further strengthen the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD); and that, even if it did not, it is by no means certain that it would result in a balance in the Bundestag (ie the lower house of Germany's legislature) which would allow a stable government to be formed.

This being said, if there are fresh elections Mr Lindner may come to rue his decision to walk away from the coalition negotiations. Both the CDU/CSU and the Greens are making it clear that they blame him for the failure of the talks, an accusation which, if it sticks (as it may well), could cause voters to turn away from the FDP - and, most likely therefore, turn to the CDU. (On the other hand, the FDP also knows from past bitter experience, in 2013, that being the junior coalition partner to Mrs Merkel's CDU/CSU can be deeply damaging to future election prospects.)

One way or the other, the failure of the talks further weakens Mrs Merkel and leaves Germany - and, therefore, the EU as a whole - in the doldrums for some time to come with no clear resolution in sight. Not yet a real crisis, in my view, but with clear potential to become one.

Alastair Newton