Angela Merkel has few options left to govern Germany
BERLIN — Only a couple of months ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was Europe’s most powerful leader. Some even claimed that she had become the leader of the Western world and filled the void left by President Trump.
Yet at the moment, she’s not even the most powerful person in Germany.
Late Sunday, the Free Democrats walked out of coalition talks with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party CSU and the Greens party. It is now up to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier — and not Merkel — to decide about how to proceed. Steinmeier’s position is largely ceremonial, but he has a crucial role in times of governmental crises. Merkel herself acknowledged early Monday that the nation previously perceived as Europe’s most stable power was facing an uncertain political future for the first time in years.
“This is a night of deep reflections about what’s next for Germany,” a visibly exhausted Merkel said Monday at around 1 a.m. local time.
Later on Monday, Steinmeier urged all parties to continue to negotiate possible coalitions, indicating that the struggle for a new government could drag on.
For now, Merkel’s government will continue to operate as a caretaker administration, and all ministers who were in place before the September elections will maintain their positions. There are a number of possible scenarios for what could happen next, but none of them appear to be stable, long-term options.
Option 1: A grand coalition
During her 12 years in power, the Social Democrats — Germany’s second mainstream party, which is to the left of the CDU — were part of the government for eight years.
But when the Social Democrats suffered a major setback in elections last September, they partially blamed the defeat on Merkel. In response, the party leadership immediately ruled out forming another grand coalition with the CDU, even though a majority of Germans remained in favor.
To some, however, the Social Democrats have become too indistinguishable from their more conservative mainstream competitor. Core issues usually believed to play into the hands of the Social Democrats, such as social justice and fair wages, have become less of a concern over the last four years.
Critics argue that the party should develop a clear profile again as an opposition movement, but forcing the country into new elections by refusing to form a coalition may turn out to be an even bigger mistake. Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz is widely considered to have failed as a candidate. New elections could result in an even more disastrous electoral outcome than in September.
Option 2: The FDP comes back to the negotiating table
After the Social Democrats rejected another grand coalition, Merkel was left with only one alternative: a coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Greens party.
The Free Democrats had only just reentered the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament, after suffering a major defeat four years ago. Like the Social Democrats’ setback, that defeat was largely blamed on the previous coalition with Merkel, in which the Free Democrats were largely unsuccessful at achieving their own goals.
This may partially explain the party’s new reluctance to form another coalition with Merkel.