Germany’s unresolved elections—Jamaica no more

After four weeks of exploratory talks between the centre-right parties led by Angela Merkel failed to find enough common ground with the Greens and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) to begin formal negotiations on a coalition government, dismayed Germans have found themselves back at square one.

The talks followed the poor performance of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the 24 September federal election, where it gained just 32.9% of the vote. Merkel was expected to be able to sit down with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, to negotiate a coalition arrangement with the FDP, Germany’s economic liberals, and the Greens.

When the FDP walked out of the talks late on Sunday night, it became clear that the next government would not be formed by what was dubbed the ‘Jamaica’ coalition of CDU, CSU, the Greens and FDP—the parties’ colours resemble the island state’s flag. The main (and pretty much only) explanation provided by FDP leader Christian Lindner was that his party sensed a ‘lack of trust’ in the negotiations. Consequently, he said, the liberals preferred to not govern at all rather than to govern the ‘wrong way’.

The main issues of disagreement were climate change and refugee policy. The viewpoints differ significantly: the CSU wants to cut back on migration and the Greens argue against limiting the family reunification program. An initial deadline was extended from Friday to Sunday when, at 13 minutes to midnight, Lindner announced to the media that he was quitting the talks. The FDP’s approach was sharply criticised after it emerged that Lindner had not alerted the other parties in the talks before he told the media. The CDU and Greens delegations watched, in shock, as the FDP made its decision known on television. After seeing four weeks of exploratory talks going nowhere, an increasingly concerned German public might have expected a joint announcement from all of the parties involved.

The FDP’s strategy is curious. In the 2013 elections, the party failed to reach the threshold of 5% of the vote necessary to enter parliament for the first time in its history and therefore missed out on any seats. It bounced back in the latest election with 10.6% of the vote and had just returned to parliament. Quitting the talks might backfire on the FDP; 32% of those who responded to a recent poll blamed it for the failure of the talks.

So, what happens next? There appear to be three possibilities:

  • A grand coalition between CDU and the Social-Democratic Party (SPD). This appears unlikely as the SPD ruled out on election night any further coalition with the CDU and the CSU. SPD leader Martin Schulz has reconfirmed that position since the elections.
  • Minority government. The parliament could elect Angela Merkel as chancellor, accepting that her CDU would govern in a minority coalition. If Merkel cannot get sufficient support to become chancellor, President Steinmeier will need to dissolve parliament and schedule new elections in January following a lengthy and complicated process under Article 63 of the constitution. He theoretically also has the option to do that if Merkel is elected chancellor and he doesn’t want to make her chancellor of a minority government.
  • New elections? That would be a first for the federal republic. It could be the end of Merkel’s time as chancellor—though she announced she would serve again as a candidate and most Germans would support She also has no clear replacement as party leader.

Germany has never had a minority federal government. In general, its people prefer stability and are sceptical of minority government and the constant lobbying it brings to decision-making. Some of the states do have experience with minority governments, but at a federal level it would be up to the opposition to demonstrate that it would be willing to compromise to prevent the political system grinding to a halt.

Minority government could lead to a more vibrant democracy. The need to constantly communicate, to exchange opinions and to compromise could make parties develop clearer positions on issues to highlight differences. It could also encourage discussion between parties, and (re-)train politicians in a healthy democratic culture of debate. The lack of such a culture has been identified by many who opted to vote against the ‘establishment’. One of the main issues in recent years has been a blurring of policy lines, with many established parties sharing positions and opinions.

A fresh election would most likely also see the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany gain even more support. It’s likely to make much of the failure of the talks to back its claim that the time of the established parties is over. Apart from that, there’s no guarantee that there will be more options for coalitions after the new elections than there are now. The only difference then could be that the SPD won’t block a ‘grand coalition’, or that a coalition of SPD, Greens and Left Party would gain a majority.

Merkel has not ruled out a minority government, but she’s clearly stated that she prefers to have new elections. Nearly two-thirds of Germans agree. No matter which path is chosen in the end, it’s worrying, particularly around Europe, that Germany is tumbling.