Three months ago German voters rejected the colorless status quo. The two traditional governing parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD), hemorrhaged votes, together barely collecting half the total, which was down two-thirds from four years before.
The liberal Free Democrats reentered the Bundestag. More dramatically, the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) won almost 13 percent of the vote and became the third largest party. The hard left Die Linke and Greens completed the spectrum, leaving a sharply divided body. Counting the Christian Social Union (CSU), which runs only in Bavaria, seven parties now sit in parliament.
The CDU and CSU saw many of their voters shift to the AfD; with an election next year in Bavaria, the CSU is particularly determined to take a tougher stance on immigration. The SDP continued to lose supporters on the moderate left who saw their old party as a shill for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rule after Martin Schulz, the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats, firmly ruled out a new “grand coalition,” insisting that his party would go into opposition. The FDP also felt used by Chancellor Merkel during its time as coalition partner, which ended in its electoral elimination in 2013.
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For understandable reasons, the (West) Germany reborn from World War II emphasized stability. The Bundestag cannot be easily dissolved and parties must hit a five percent threshold to enter. Until the absorption of East Germany, there was no party to the left of the SPD. Until September, no party to the right of the CDU/CSU sat in the Bundestag.
Chancellor since 2005, Merkel advertised herself as being a pair of “safe hands” for Germany. But she, more than anyone else, is responsible for the rise of the political extremists. By squeezing serious disagreement and debate out of the political system, she destroyed the credibility of the centrist parties, fueling Die Linke and the AfD.
During her first term, Merkel ruthlessly stole issues from the SPD, minimizing the differences between the two parties. That allowed her to win a noteworthy victory in 2009 over her partners after their first grand coalition. She then joined with the FDP, but thwarted its pro-business agenda in their coalition rule through 2013. Having seemingly governed without purpose, the Free Democrats dropped from 14 percent of the vote in the previous election to less than five percent, and thus fell out of the Bundestag. That led to another grand coalition, further mixing the positions of the two parties. Both lost heavily in September; the SPD no longer even looks like a governing party, receiving a dismal one-fifth share of ballots.
The issue that proved most damaging was immigration. Amid the onrush of refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere, Germany in 2015 took in a million people, mostly men and mostly Muslim. The social consequences, though not as dire as sometimes forecast, were serious. Merkel’s ratings dropped and the AfD surged. As the number of refugees subsequently dropped the chancellor hoped to repeat her past dominance. But then the CDU/CSU suffered its worst result since 1949, looking good only in comparison with the hapless Social Democrats.
The SPD rejected another turn as junior partner and Merkel placed the AfD beyond the pale, leaving the only option to form a stable government the so-called Jamaica coalition, the CDU/CSU, FDP and Greens, whose combined party colors matched those of the Jamaican flag. But agreement on a common program was hindered by the Greens’ support for immigration, antagonism to economic growth, and enthusiasm for the European Union. The FDP eventually walked out, arguing that the differences were too great—and apparently believing Merkel again was undercutting the Free Democrats.
Germany could run an election repeat, but polls suggest little change in the result, leaving the problem unsolved. Merkel could set up a minority government, seeking support from other parties on an issue-by-issue basis. However, this has never been done in the new Germany and runs against the broad desire for stable governance. So pressure increased on the SDP to reverse course and agree to form another grand coalition.
Schulz soon caved. The party decided to formally enter into discussions with the CDU/CSU at its congress in early December. Andrea Nahles, the SPD Bundestag leader, said that “it’s no more and no less than having talks at the moment.” She also said, “It’s not automatic that we’ll end up in a grand coalition.” Theoretically, the talks could lead to new elections or a CDU/CSU minority government. However, Merkel has dismissed the latter possibilities, and most observers expect another grand coalition to result.