Tim Sung considers considers the implications of the ongoing failure of mainstream political parties to form a coalition majority government in the Bundestag
September saw elections to Germany’s Bundestag, and initially little seemed awry with the result: Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Unionists (CDU) and the Christian Socialist Union Alliance (CSU) finished first, with just shy of a third of the total vote share. Further, the Social Democrats (SPD) finished second, maintaining the SPD and CDU/CSU orthodoxy in German politics.
Since 2005, a government headed by Merkel and made up by a combination of the CDU/CSU with either the FDP or SPD has led Germany. Yet the prospect of another of these ‘Grand Coalitions’ between the SPD and CDU is apparently off the cards; this time around Martin Schulz, the SDP leader, was elected on the explicit basis that he would not form another coalition with Angela Merkel unless core demands including fair wages, free education, secure pensions and a commitment to a democratic Europe are met.
Schulz wants to present his party as a divergence from the Merkel-led governments of the past twelve years; he understandably fears for public perception of his party as an independent progressive voice after being in bed with the CDU for so long. Schultz can be seen as trying to reinvigorate perceived differences between the traditional mainstream parties, especially given ongoing fears concerning the rise of extremist parties in the Bundestag. As a centrist consensus of policy has developed between the CDU and SDP over the past twelve years, space has been freed up on the peripherals of the political spectrum for more tasteless parties and movements.
Given the failure of the mainstream party system to build a coalition, comparisons have inevitably been made between the current situation and the end of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s. To make a direct comparison between the two situations is ultimately to exaggerate current woes, given the fact that Germans are not currently in the midst of The Great Depression or facing on-going repercussions from the Treaty of Versailles, and modern German politicians and citizens are hypersensitive to any political or societal developments that has any echoes of the 1930s. While a polarisation of current-day politics in Germany has led to greater protests, with the rise of the PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) movement stirring social tensions, these are not at a comparable level to the violent political protests that were commonplace during the Weimar Republic.
However, one area where parallels with the twilight years of Weimar Germany is obvious is in the rise of the far right. Although they were the largest two parties, support for both the CDU and SPD has reached a historical low, to the benefit of the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), who finished third. A party that advocates the stopping of the ‘Islamisation’ of Germany, hardline immigration strategies and anti-EU policies like the re-introduction of the Deutschmark, the rise of the AfD shows that far-right populist ideas are once again a considerable force in Germany.
Earlier in the year, the rising tide of right-wing populist sentiment epitomised by Brexit and Trump seemed to have been contained with Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD, a centre-right conservative party, prevailing against Geert Wilder’s populist right-wing PVV party in the March 2017 Dutch General Elections. The victory of centrist Emanuel Macron, and his En Marche! movement, in the French Presidential elections two months later, against the far-right Marine Le Pen and the Front National seemed further confirmation of a stalling of the populist tide. Moreover, as the PVV and Front National finished second in each of their respective elections, one would be forgiven if they thought the AfD’s third place finish in the German Federal Elections was a continuing trend of the populist decline.
Unlike in the Netherlands, however, where the VVD managed to get together a governing coalition of parties willing to uphold the foundations of its liberal democracy, the situation in Germany is rather more complex. With the SPD out of the picture, talks to form together a ‘Jamaica Coalition’ between the CDU, Free Democratic Party and the Greens all failed. Split on migration policy, energy and climate change, and industrial strategy, stalemate remains the situation in these coalition talks.
Merkel is currently running an unstable minority government in the Bundestag. There is, however, a potential progress in the fact that SPD are now showing signs of initiating coalition talks with the CDU, after being requested to do so by the President Steinmeier. The fear within the SPD is that if the party doesn’t enter coalition talks, the threat of a new general election – where they stand to lose more seats to the AfD – becomes ever greater.
The on-going current failure to build a coalition along the lines of the past three governments may lead to positive democratic change in the long-run. The greater plurality of views emerging could theoretically enable a more informed and educated debate. The shock of the rise of the far-right AfD and the self-realisation by the mainstream parties of the apparent blurring of their ideologies is leading to a rejuvenation in distinct policymaking, engaging more voters to consider new ideas and solutions for Germany’s problems. All of this ultimately fosters a healthy democratic environment, where a newly emerged nativist right-wing can be taken down in the political arena of public discussion and the Bundestag.