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A nation must think before it acts.
For more than a month, representatives of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been engaged in preliminary discussions about creating a coalition government with two other smaller parties—the pro-business liberal (in the European sense) Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the environmentalist Greens. Following a long German habit of identifying political parties and their coalitions by traditional colors, the linking of Christian Democrats (Black), Liberals (Yellow), and Greens has been referred to as a “Jamaica” Coalition, reflecting the colors of the Caribbean nation’s flag.
Jamaica is a popular vacation spot, an island of tropical dreams. Today, however, it represents a disturbing political reality. The collapse of those negotiations has plunged Germany into its deepest political crisis since reunification.
Such a coalition is a new development in German politics, having been tried out so far only on the state level in Saarland (from 2009-2012) and currently in the far northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. It is a sign of increasing political fragmentation in Germany, as the relative decline of the larger parties has made broader coalitions necessary, and of the desire of centrist parties to cooperate in the face of extremist challenges from both the neo-communist Linke (Left) and the nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).
It also happened, in this case, to be Angela Merkel’s only mathematical chance at a majority after the disappointing results of national elections on September 24. Despite her high international profile, the CDU/CSU suffered significant losses, winning barely a third of the overall vote. Merkel’s coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), fell even further. The once-proud SPD gained barely 21% of the vote, and on election night, its leader, Martin Schulz, announced that the Social Democrats preferred to go into opposition to regroup than to continue as a shrunken junior partner in another (increasingly less) Grand Coalition. Unwilling to include the AfD, who rode a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-establishment sentiment to 13% of the vote, let alone the Linke, Merkel and colleagues claimed to welcome the chance to make Jamaica a reality.
Supporters of the Jamaica idea have hailed it as a creative solution to political stasis, providing an alternative to the stale cooperation between the CDU/CSU and SPD. The very idea that the CDU/CSU and the Greens could contemplate a coalition would have appeared ludicrous to politicians in the 1980s, when the Greens first emerged out of the peace movement to denounce the pro-NATO policies of CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It certainly says a lot about the changing German political landscape that such cooperation has functioned reasonably well at the city and state level, and has become a national possibility. Both sides have altered their positions on key issues, especially as a degree of environmental consciousness has become part of the mainstream consensus, and they have also displayed a degree of pragmatism in finding common ground. Critics, however, pointing out significant policy differences on migration and environmental policy not only between the CDU/CSU and the Greens but also between the FDP and the Greens, denounced the idea as far-fetched and doomed from the start. Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the AfD have been especially harsh, viewing Jamaica as merely the last bastion of a political elite determined at all costs to keep the AfD from government. But even sympathetic European centrist observers such as Timothy Garton Ash have called it an “improbable pantomime horse.”
Well, that horse broke a leg on Sunday night when the telegenic leader of the FDP, Christian Lindner, announced that his party was abandoning the preliminary coalition talks. The trip to Jamaica has been at best postponed, and at worst canceled.
Two questions come to mind:
Answering the first question depends heavily on where one stands politically. Lindner portrayed his decision to break off talks as a blow for political principle. Blaming the Greens for their insistence on liberal policies on the reunification of migrant families, Lindner claimed there were compromises he was not prepared to make. “It is better not to govern than to govern incorrectly” (Besser nicht regieren als falsch), was the slogan that appeared with suspiciously immediate ubiquity on all FDP social media platforms. Supporters of the other parties, however, have rejected this portrayal. CSU Chair Horst Seehofer (himself an advocate of stricter immigration policies) claimed that an agreement was “within reach,” while other Christian Democrats and Greens denounced the FDP as inflexible.
Lindner is also pursuing a clear, if risky, political calculation. He succeeded in returning the FDP to the Bundestag with a campaign that hinted at a more pro-business and nationalist liberalism, with enough criticism of Merkel’s immigration policies and of the European Union to appeal to those middle-class voters who were upset with Merkel but perhaps not quite willing to vote for the AfD. Looking around the European neighborhood, Lindner may have seen possible role models in the equally young and telegenic Emmanuel Macron in France (who basically created a new political party riding a wave of frustration with the political establishment) and also Sebastian Kurz in Austria (who has embraced a hard line on immigration to build a center-right coalition). Finishing behind the AfD but slightly ahead of the Greens was a notable but incomplete success. Although a coalition with the CDU/CSU alone would have appealed to many center-right voters, it was not clear that being part of a government with the Greens would be good for the FDP’s long-term strategy of appealing to dissatisfied but respectable conservatives. (Indeed, the AfD was founded by defectors from both the CSU and the FDP, so this would be a kind of reunion strategy.) A few years in parliamentary opposition may serve that purpose better, giving the FDP a chance to hone its message. Indeed, Lindner and the FDP reacted especially strongly to Martin Schulz’s announcement that the SPD would not be available for another Grand Coalition—not out of any affection for the existing arrangement, but because it provided a target-rich environment for the FDP’s rhetorical jabs. After Schulz’s demurral, it would have been hard for the FDP to say no to negotiations. Lindner may have even been serious about participating in the government if the terms were right. Nevertheless, it’s not surprising that Lindner chose this dramatic step, and has even suggested that new elections are necessary. Especially by suggesting that immigration was the sticking point, Lindner is clearly preparing the FDP for a campaign in which it runs hard to capture conservative votes.
As for what happens next, that depends on how the parties and their leaders manage the details of the German constitution. Merkel has met with Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has the constitutional responsibility to approve coalition negotiations. Assuming that Steinmeier, who comes from the SPD and served as Merkel’s Foreign Minister in a previous Grand Coalition, cannot convince his old party to return to government, and that the FDP is serious about rejecting Jamaica, the only remaining options would be a minority government (either of the CDU/CSU and Greens, or, less likely, the CDU/CSU alone) or early national elections.
There is no tradition in postwar German history of minority governments at the national level, which would make every parliamentary decision a drama as the government sought supplementary votes from other parties. It is not an appealing prospect now, especially at a time when Germany faces both domestic and international challenges—from immigration to the Brexit negotiations—and has to deal with difficult international interlocutors including Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.
That makes new elections appear inevitable. Here again, however, the constitutional rules do not make it easy. First, the Bundestag would have to go through the process of voting on Angela Merkel as Chancellor candidate of the largest party. If she fails to receive a majority vote, the Bundestag would have two weeks to reconsider before voting again on whomever is nominated to be chancellor. Only after that second round of voting was complete would it be possible for the Federal President to dissolve the Bundestag, with elections taking place sometime in the late winter or early spring.
Either way, Germany and Europe face months of further political uncertainty. To make matters worse, at the end of it all, there is no guarantee that the election results would provide any more clarity. Current polls suggest a picture at least as fragmented as the September elections. Lindner may believe he can gain votes, but it is also possible that a campaign that includes multiple parties offering anti-establishment rhetoric will only serve the purposes of the AfD. One of their leaders, Alice Weidel, has already announced that the AfD welcomes new elections. It is very likely that the next Chancellor will face many of the same problems, and the individual parties will face many of the same existential choices of whether to retreat into opposition or to take up the responsibility of governing.
All of this leads us back to the woman who has stood at the center of German, European, and in some cases, even world politics since 2005—Angela Merkel. The September elections were always going to be her last in active politics. Despite ongoing criticism for her handling of migration and of the ongoing Euro crisis, her apparent political recovery over the course of the past year led pollsters to assume that she would enter a fourth and final term with a range of coalition options. Instead, she finds herself with few, and with her reputation as the stable hand on the tiller guiding Germany through choppy seas facing its greatest challenge.
Merkel’s critics, from the AfD to the broader Euroskeptic press (sometimes together) are gleefully proclaiming that “Merkel is finished!” Whether she is or not will depend on how she manages this last crisis. At stake is not only her personal political fate, but the future of German and European politics. Merkel may not guide the Germans to Jamaica after all, but we can hope that her failure doesn’t send everyone back to Weimar.