Merkel gets go-ahead to form German coalition government
But power struggles within her own party and with coalition partner raise doubts about whether long-serving leader will last a full term
Germany's centre-left Social Democrats declared on Sunday that their members had voted in favour of a new coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel, paving the way for her conservatives to form a government six months after elections.
Mrs Merkel, 63, welcomed the announcement by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that two-thirds of its members had backed a repeat of the "grand coalition" that ruled Germany since 2013.
"I look forward to working with the SPD again for the good of our country," she said on her party's Twitter account.
But the unprecedented length of the talks, the painful concessions she had to make to reach a deal and the criticism levelled at her from her own party illustrate how weak she has become, and cast doubt on whether she will last the full four-year term.
The surprising outbreak of political instability in the Europe Union’s most important member state has alarmed Germany’s allies and paralysed the EU at a time when it faces challenges on all fronts with Brexit, internal rifts over refugees and civil rights, pressure for reforms, a combative America under Donald Trump and an increasingly menacing Russia.
But hopes that Germany will return to its normal, dependable self may be dashed. After more than half a century of self-imposed dullness in the wake of the Nazi period, German politics has become interesting again.
The only certainty is that this government will be less stable than the last one. Analysts said Berlin will be riven by power struggles between the parties and, possibly more damagingly, within the ranks of Mrs Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) where contenders on the right and left of the party are sharpening their daggers for a war of succession.
“I have no doubt that she wants to see out her term, but I do have doubts whether she will succeed,” Professor Heinrich Oberreuter, a political scientist at Passau University, told The National. “As the government settles down to business, I can see conflicts erupting within the CDU and people calling for her to pass the baton to a successor well before the next election.
“Also, I’m not sure if the coalition will hold. The parties agreed to take stock after two years to check if it’s working out. That could be the point at which the SPD decides to pull out.”
In Europe, Mrs Merkel has been dethroned as de facto leader by French President Emmanuel Macron, who has come up with proposals for deeper EU integration, such as a common eurozone budget and finance minister. At home, Germans have not forgiven her for letting in more than a million refugees fleeing Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa since 2015.
That move, said Mr Oberreuter, was likely to overshadow her entire chancellorship which has lasted since 2005. Fury at the refugee influx swept neo-Nazis into the German parliament for the first time in over half a century in a protest vote that has tarnished the country’s liberal reputation.
The far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has 93 MPs, including people who have hailed the achievements of German soldiers in the Second World War, criticised the construction of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and promised to “muck out Germany” by cracking down on immigration. It is still gaining support in opinion polls and launched a motion in parliament last month to forbid women from wearing burqas in public places.
For the time being though, Mrs Merkel, ever calm and down to earth, has drawn on her prodigious political skills to put a lid on the unrest, getting the reluctant SPD on side and placating critics in her party.
True to the adage that you keep your friends close but your enemies closer, she has appointed one of her most vocal critics, Jens Spahn, to the cabinet as health minister – a poisoned chalice because it is a tough job that tends to require unpopular decisions. Mr Spahn, who has called for greater supervision of mosques and imams in Germany, is seen as representing the right wing of the CDU.
Mrs Merkel has also anointed her preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, 55, a mother of three and devout Catholic, by arranging her appointment as the CDU’s general secretary, an important party management job that could serve as a useful springboard for higher office. Mrs Kramp-Karrenbauer, dubbed AKK for ease of use and now less flatteringly labelled “Mini Merkel’ by the media, was governor of the small western state of Saarland. “I can, I want to and I will,” she told a CDU congress to rapturous applause last Monday, and her appointment received a communist level of support at 98.9 per cent.
But Mrs Merkel has paid a heavy price to secure her fourth term. She was forced to hand the SPD plum cabinet posts including the prized finance ministry, and to agree to SPD demands for improved workers’ rights and higher student loans.
She knows that from now on, with powerful SPD ministers in her cabinet and CDU critics ready to pounce, her role will effectively be confined to that of a caretaker while her party sorts out who should succeed her.
That function suits her well, and her critics would argue that she has never done much more than that. Her tenure has been dominated by managing the financial crisis and then the euro debt crisis rather than pursuing any vision for Germany. She has had the good fortune of presiding over a long period of steady economic growth as cars, machines and chemicals made in Germany have been in high demand around the world.
She has lectured the rest of Europe about the need to reform. But she has done little to modernise Germany, which lags far behind other top economies in broadband coverage, has been slow to roll out electric cars, has invested too little in its crumbling roads and bridges, applies ancient rules to shield some industries from competition and is under fire from its international partners for running a chronically underfunded military that has no operational submarines – and famously used a broomstick to masquerade for a tank gun.
Analysts say that even though Mrs Merkel has said she wants to serve out her term, she would not be heart-broken to leave earlier. Her husband, eminent chemistry professor Joachim Sauer, 68, retired last October. In November 2016, when she announced after some delay that she would seek a fourth term, there was an unmistakable hint of reluctance and fatigue. It was evident she did so out of a sense of duty.
It may be too early to write Mrs Merkel's political obituary, but given the dramatic decline in her power in recent months, it is worth thinking about her legacy. On the plus side, she kept Germany committed to the European project and she reaffirmed the country’s alliance with France, which is crucial for Europe. She has been a calming presence on the world stage and ensured that Germany remained a beacon of democratic values in a world that has become more dangerous. She has been a welcome contrast to the chest-thumping alpha males that run Russia, Turkey and the US, said analysts.
Beyond that, her legacy is modest by comparison with predecessors such as Helmut Kohl, who unified Germany, Willy Brandt, who initiated reconciliation with Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and Konrad Adenauer, who tied post-war Germany to the West.
“Her legacy will be that she was the first woman and the first easterner to become chancellor,” Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst at Berlin’s Free University, told The National. “That’s a bit sad after four terms. But that’s what happens if you just muddle through. At some point you get stuck in the mud.”
Updated: March 4, 2018 05:00 PM