Germany’s election: Jamaica or bust
26 Sep 2017|

Germans have voted to keep Angela Merkel as chancellor, and expressed deep unhappiness about her Christian Democrat Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) – Social Democrat (SPD) coalition government. The SPD, the party of former chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, was relegated to also-ran status, suffering its worst result since 1949. Frustrated with both parties, Germans also transferred their votes to smaller parties, especially the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which gained its first seats in the Bundestag and is now the third-largest party in the German parliament.

Merkel’s CDU/CSU remains the largest party in the Bundestag, but its vote dropped by 8%, from over 41% at the last elections to just 33%, falling well short of a majority. As the largest party, it is entitled to form government again, with Merkel as chancellor.

The CDU/CSU was left with only two options to create a Bundestag majority: either enter another grand coalition with the SPD, which would produce a majority of about 40, or pursue a coalition with two minor parties, the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), which would mean a majority of around 30.

Mathematically, there are no other alternatives. Both the CDU/CSU and the second-placed SPD have already ruled out a coalition of any sort with the AfD.

The failed SPD chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz, has ruled out a further grand coalition with the CDU/CSU—which isn’t much of a surprise given the SPD’s appalling poll result. Most members of the SPD will blame their party’s decision in 2013 to hop into bed with the CDU/CSU as the source of the SPD’s decline. Many would prefer a period of rejuvenation in opposition. But it’s early days yet and Merkel will certainly at least float the prospect with the SPD, even if it is then rejected.

So that leaves the so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition option, named after the colours of Jamaica’s flag. That would involve the CDU/CSU (party colour black) forming a coalition with the Greens (party colour green) and the FDP (party colour yellow). This option is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The CDU/CSU is already in a coalition with the Greens in the state of Baden-Württemberg, for example. And the FDP was the CDU/CSU’s coalition partner in government under Merkel until 2013, when it failed to clear the 5% hurdle for representation in the Bundestag.

But the trick will be to bring all three parties together in ‘Jamaica’. The Germans usually take ages to build coalitions after elections—it took over 12 weeks to get the grand coalition up and running in 2013—and this one could break all records. There are some fundamental differences to be addressed among the three parties (over Europe, the environment and refugee policy, for example), and the Greens and the FDP understand very well that they have Merkel and the CDU/CSU over a barrel: Merkel needs both the Greens and the FDP to gain a governing majority.

The FDP has reinvented itself and will have around 78 seats in the next Bundestag. It has traditionally been a very pro-business party with an outlook that is often compatible with that of the CDU/CSU conservatives. But, under its new party leader (Christian Lindner), the FDP has become more Euro-sceptical and hard line on the asylum-seeker problem.

The Greens (67 seats provisionally) have moved much more to the centre of German politics and are closer to Merkel’s CDU/CSU on issues like Europe.

There’s no guarantee that the Greens and the FDP will get along in government, let alone with the CDU/CSU. But try Frau Merkel must. And, of course, there will be many within the CDU/CSU who will blame the huge drop in the CDU/CSU’s vote since 2013, and the AfD’s large gains, on Merkel’s approach to asylum-seekers and demand a much tougher line from her government.

We’ll have to wait and see how the coalition negotiations go and what policies and (significant) compromises the eventual coalition agreement contains before we can make any sensible assessment of what the new Merkel-led government will mean more broadly for Europe (including building the new European Union and negotiating its approach to Brexit) and the West. But it’s clear that the 2017 election result has been damaging for brand Merkel. However, there’s little doubt that the continuity, stability and common sense that four more years of Chancellor Merkel will bring is unequivocally a good thing for Germany—and probably for us all.

A final word on the AfD, which is what the media is focusing on, almost to the exclusion of anything else. After sitting on about 9% for much of the campaign, a late surge as undecided voters made up their minds resulted in the AfD winning around 13% of the vote and about 98 seats in the Bundestag. It has built strongly, in particular, on its very high support in the eastern part of Germany. This is a massive wake-up call for Germans and absolutely a bad thing for Germany and for Europe. In the remote likelihood that the SPD were to join another grand coalition, the AfD, as the third-largest party, would formally be the leader of the opposition, with all the status that brings.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What the outcome means is that 87% of Germans who voted didn’t vote for the AfD, and none of the other large parties in the Bundestag is prepared to enter a coalition with it.

And remember, against this, that Marine Le Pen got almost 34% of the vote in the run-off against President Macron in France, and there are already populist/nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary. Also, opinion polling ahead of Italy’s elections, which are scheduled for 2018 but might be much sooner, suggests that populist parties, in coalition with others on the right, could have a majority. Taken together, these developments are more worth worrying about, at least for now, than the AfD.

The bottom line for Australia out of all this (in the short term, anyway) is that Angela Merkel will be chancellor again, and that is positive. Germany will remain the most important country and largest economy in the EU and it is absolutely in our interests to develop the closest possible relationship we can with Chancellor Merkel and her eventual government.