Germany isn’t Jamaica: Merkel’s difficulties in forming a new government

by Philipp Hirsch

Jamaica coalition
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L to R: Christian Lindner, leader of the German Free Liberals (FDP), Chancellor Angela Merkel, Cem Özdemir, co-leader of the Green Party. Image: Boril Gourinov via Fickr

The trip to Jamaica was cancelled on Sunday 19 November. Late at night, the German Free Liberals (FDP) announced that they were going to leave pre-negotiations about forming the new German government with Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU and the Green Party. This alliance has been dubbed ‘Jamaica’ by political observers, as the respective party colours match the flag of the Caribbean state: black for the CDU/CSU, yellow for the FDP and, obviously, green for the Greens.

Many associate the island of Jamaica with Bob Marley and the Rastafari. And indeed, such a coalition would have breathed some fresh air into German politics. For the first time on a national level, three parties would have formed a coalition. Also, in another novel move, the left-leaning Greens were to join hands with the right-leaning Liberals and Merkel’s CDU/CSU.

The German chancellor opted for this unusual constellation after an inconclusive national election in September, which she won despite significant losses. Initial negotiations between the three parties continued for almost two months, the key issues being immigration, the response to climate change and tax policy. Compromise seemed possible. Then came 19 November and the Liberal walkout from the negotiations. For the moment, this marks an end to both a Jamaica coalition as well as any swift formation of government in Berlin, with reactions ranging from dismay over the Liberal move to rising despair about political gridlock in Europe’s largest economy.

There seem to be four scenarios for what will happen next:

1. Immediate fresh elections: German politics has proved unable to deal with the results of the September election. In theory, failure to form a government can lead to new elections. The process, however, is time-consuming. Spring 2018 would be a realistic date, but the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier,  needs to trigger these elections and he has signalled that he would prefer not to go down that road. Also, it is unclear whether the results of new elections will differ significantly from those in September. Polling, as unreliable as it seems to be these days, suggests no major change in public mood. German politics might simply find itself back at square one after another election.

2. A minority government: Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, are still the largest bloc in parliament. Thus, she could form the first minority national government in post-war Germany to provide at least some leadership to the country. There have been precedents for this at the regional level, usually for a short time period before majority coalitions were formed. A minority government could thus be a way to bridge the gap to new elections in one or two years and prevent an immediate re-election. However, it is by definition unstable and Merkel herself seems highly disinclined towards it.

3. A grand coalition: When the two traditional big parties of Germany, the CDU/CSU and SPD (Social Democrats), form a government, this is termed a ‘grand coalition’. For example, Merkel ruled with the SPD from 2013 to 2017. After significant losses in September’s election, the centre-left party categorically ruled out entering another government with Merkel. But this stance is now weakening within the party, caused by a sense of responsibility to govern the country coupled with fear of another electoral defeat if the September vote  repeats itself. For the moment, it appears as if there will at least be talks between the two major parties, but it is unclear whether a formal coalition will result from this.

4. Rebooted Jamaica talks: Maybe the Liberal party leader, Christian Lindner, was surprised by the negative backlash following his decision to pull out from a possible government. Critics accused him of acting irresponsibly and immaturely. While he himself has ruled out another shot at Jamaica in the near future, other senior party figures have left that option open. But it is a highly unlikely outcome. It would undermine the authority of the almost all-mighty party leader, who led the Liberals to electoral success on a highly personalised campaign platform.

Currently, a lot seems to point to another grand coalition. Same old instead of Jamaican novelty. But party talks might only start next year and their outcomes are unclear. German politics is unusually volatile at this moment and it appears as if anything could happen at any time. But even if Merkel was to form a stable government with the Social Democrats again, one thing seems certain: Berlin will be a much messier place in the foreseeable future. Four years ago, the SPD entered government alongside Merkel at the peak of her powers and shrunk in her shadow. Now, her stature is considerably diminished and the SPD would make her pay a significant price for its joining the government. More squabbling, more argument and more controversy are likely to be features of German politics in the near future – comparable maybe to the somewhat chaotic 2009 CDU/CSU–FDP government.

This is bad news for all those who were counting on a stable Germany in the geographical centre of Europe. Even with a majority government, Germany might not be the reliable partner needed for wide-ranging EU reforms, as envisioned by President Macron in France. Also, fundamental policy decisions will be due in Germany itself, regarding immigration, digitalisation, investments and climate change. In the current setting, debates about these issues might be far less harmonious than is the norm under a Merkel government. But one hope will not be realised: that a more inward-looking Germany will concede on Brexit. The view that Britain will need to pay a price for leaving the EU and that the wellbeing of the union is more important than good German–British trade relations is pretty well-anchored in German politics. One of the few things politicians in Berlin can probably agree on very quickly these days.

About the author

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Philipp Hirsch is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on West German foreign policy towards the Middle East during the Cold War. His previous work experience includes the German parliament (Bundestag) and UNDP.
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