German Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term in office this past Sunday, September 24, leading her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) partners to victory with 32.9 percent of the vote. Merkel now has a mandate to form another government, though this one is unlikely to take the form of any of the three previous governments she’s led.
In Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, parties almost always need to build majority coalitions in order to govern. In her past three terms as Chancellor, Merkel has governed both in a “grand coalition” with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and in a smaller, center-right coalition with the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). Forming a coalition this time, however, will prove much more difficult for Merkel.
Though grand coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the SPD would easily provide the required majority, its formation is a near impossibility. The SPD has loudly announced that they are not interested in governing alongside CDU again. Following the election, the SPD’s leader, Martin Schulz, called Merkel “the biggest loser” and said the government had been voted out. In essence, Schulz and other SPD leaders are calling for a fresh start after an often acrimonious term in government as the junior partner to the CDU.
The other factor at play in the SPD’s decision to join the opposition is the new presence of the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. They are now the third largest party, having garnered 12.6 percent of the votes. If the SPD were to join into a coalition with the CDU, the AfD would become the official opposition party and be awarded all of the resources and press that accompanies that title. As the oldest active German political party, the SPD is keen to ensure that does not happen.
So where does the CDU go without the SPD? The most obvious first choice is the Free Democrats, who have governed with the CDU before, most recently from 2009 to 2013. Merkel and the CDU are already making moves in the FDP’s direction. There may be some hesitation on the part of the FDP, as their last tenure in Merkel’s coalition led to poor numbers at the 2013 polls. Yet, the party appears to have little choice. They would not be a major force in the opposition, so the FDP may very well be better off joining Merkel’s coalition once more.
Joining with the FDP, however, will still not bring Merkel the parliamentary majority she needs to govern. To achieve a ruling coalition, she is left with only one other option: the Greens. While Die Linke (The Left), is too far left, and the AfD too far right, the Green party, is a potentially accessible, mainstream partner. Historically, the Greens have not gotten along well with the FDP, each party running attacks ads against the other. Though, there is hope, as some rapprochement was made shortly after the election, and the party leaders now seem to at least tolerate each other.
Merkel is not going to find a perfect fit for her governing coalition, but she must make do. The center right CDU, the centrist liberal FDP, the center left Greens, and the conservative CSU make for an odd combination. In fact, the group has been called a “Jamaica coalition,” which gets its name from the colors of Jamaica’s flag, the same as the parties’ colors.
The are two important implications of the Jamaica coalition in the realm of global politics.
The most prominent issue is migration. Angela Merkel has stood by her position of welcoming refugees into the country, saying before the election, “I’d make all the important decisions of 2015 the same way again. It was an extraordinary situation and I made my decision based on what I thought was right from a political and humanitarian standpoint.” The 2015 crisis spurred support for the far right AfD, among others, and invited criticism from the CDU’s more conservative Bavarian partners, the CSU. In fact, the FDP and Greens may be fairly amenable to Merkel’s liberal approach to refugees, and the CSU could be the sticklers.
Concerned about losing their conservative voters to the AfD, the CSU leadership is under pressure to move their migration policy further to the right, toward that of the AfD. The CSU’s policy would impose a cap on the number of refugees allowed into the country, something opposed by the other potential coalition partners.
CSU deputy Manfred Weber couched his party’s position, saying, “We need a policy that takes account of people’s concerns.”
Even though the CSU might cause a headache for their larger CDU ally, it is unlikely the Bavarians will be able to dictate a restrictive refugee policy. More likely is a result with some minor concessions but based on Merkel’s policy of the last few years. The continuation of Merkel’s refugee policy would be a continuation of the status quo. Germany has been, and likely will continue to be, a leader on how the EU handles the refugee crisis.
The second major issue is European integration and the role of the European Union.
President Emmanuel Macron of France recently delivered a major speech on the future of the EU, calling for broad reforms and speaking of a bright future. Angela Merkel responded by praising his “European passion,” but ever the cautious leader, she warned against taking on Macron’s proposals immediately. Merkel’s re-election won praise from other leaders, including President Macron and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, who said Merkel’s re-election would serve to promote “the European integration project.”
While Merkel herself is a proud promoter of Europe, more pessimistic analyses have argued that the radical sides of her coalition, on both left and right, could pull Germany away from Europe. In short, these analyses argue that Germany may retreat to looking out for its own interests, but fail to recognize political realities. The political maneuvering of coalition building will likely mean that the process will take weeks, if not longer.
Ultimately, though, concessions will be made, and Merkel will be the chancellor in charge. This means that Germany will remain close to Europe and its institutions, as it has done for the last twelve years. Even if the relationship does not grow as close as Emmanuel Macron would like, by no means should we expect the Germans to fall back from their role in Europe today.
Angela Merkel now finds herself leading Germany for a fourth term. Her position is strong, and she calls the shots. Her path to a stable government is more unsure than before, but she is more likely than not to broker a deal.
Merkel has a template of sorts: the Jamaica coalition in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. The state’s CDU premier, Daniel Günther, has spoken to the effectiveness of this coalition: “The secret to our success was that every party accepted that, for such a coalition to work, individual parties needed to have clear victories in certain points.”
If Merkel can make her potential coalition partners feel like they’re winning clear victories, then she should be successful. And if she is successful, we will see a continuation of even-handed German leadership for the next four years.
This is the first column in “Cardinal Richelieu,” a weekly series by members of the student group European Security Undergraduate Network. Ben Gardner-Gill is a junior studying history.