Germany in political turmoil as coalition talks fail, Merkel fighting to stay chancellor
Chancellor Angela Merkel was left scrambling for ways to drag Germany out of crisis Monday after high-stakes talks to form a new government collapsed, potentially forcing Europe’s top economy into snap elections.
Germany now faces weeks, if not months of paralysis with a lame-duck government that is unlikely to take bold policy action. With no other viable coalition in sight, Germany may be forced to hold new elections that risk being as inconclusive as September’s polls.
Merkel, whose liberal refugee policy has proved deeply divisive, had been forced to seek an alliance with an unlikely group of parties after the ballot left her without a majority. But following more than a month of gruelling negotiations, the leader of the pro-business FDP, Christian Lindner, walked out of talks on Sunday night, saying there was no “basis of trust” to forge a government with Merkel’s conservative alliance CDU-CSU and ecologist Greens. “It is better not to govern than to govern badly,” he said, adding that the parties did not share “a common vision on modernising” Germany.
Voicing regret for the FDP’s decision, Merkel vowed to steer Germany through the crisis. “As chancellor… I will do everything to ensure that this country comes out well through this difficult time,” she said.
News magazine Der Spiegel called the breakdown in negotiations a “catastrophe” for Merkel and said Germany, long seen as an island of stability in a turbulent West, was having its “Brexit moment, its Trump moment”.
The euro fell following the news, although analysts said the longer-term implications for the currency were not yet clear.
The negotiations, which turned increasingly acrimonious, stumbled on a series of issues including immigration policy.
Merkel’s liberal refugee policy that let in more than one million asylum seekers since 2015 had also pushed some voters to the far-right AfD, which captured 12.6 percent of the vote after an Islamophobic and anti-immigration campaign. The parties also differed on environmental issues, with the ecologists wanting to phase out dirty coal and combustion-engine cars, while the conservatives and FDP emphasised the need to protect industry and jobs.
Party chiefs had initially set a deadline of 6:00 pm (1700 GMT) on Sunday, but that passed without a breakthrough — after already blowing through a previous target on Thursday.
Chancellor in danger
Merkel could now try to convince the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which has been the junior coalition partner in her government since 2013, to return to the fold. But after suffering a humiliating loss at the polls, the party’s top brass has repeatedly said the SPD’s place was now in the opposition.
Merkel, who has been in power for 12 years, could also lead a minority government although she had signalled that she was not in favour of such instability. Germany could therefore be forced to hold new elections, which would have to be called by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. But that is not without peril for Merkel, who would face questions from within her party on whether she is still the best candidate to carry their banner into a new campaign.
Top-selling Bild daily said a failure to forge a tie-up — a so-called “Jamaica coalition” because the parties’ colours match those of the Jamaican flag — put “her chancellorship in danger”. A poll by Welt online also found that 61.4 percent of people surveyed said a collapse of talks would mean an end to Merkel as chancellor. Only 31.5 percent thought otherwise.
After 12 years at the helm of the EU’s biggest economy, the leader often called the world’s most powerful woman may now have to contest snap elections at a time she is increasingly described as entering the twilight of her reign.
‘Leader of free world’
Merkel may be down, but few are counting her out just yet, given the many crises she has mastered before.
During her long rule, the pastor’s daughter raised behind the Iron Curtain has been derided as Europe’s “austerity queen”, cheered as a saviour by refugees and hailed as the new “leader of the free world”. In the turbulent times of Trump, Brexit and multiple global crises, the 63-year-old was long seen as the bedrock in a country concerned with maintaining its enviable growth and employment rates.
Germans have thanked her by keeping her in power ever since she became their youngest and first female chancellor in 2005, a contemporary of long-gone leaders like George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. “Mutti” (Mummy) Merkel, with her pragmatic, modest and reassuringly bland style, seemed to have perfected the art of staying in power in a wealthy, ageing nation that tends to favour stability over change.
Seemingly devoid of vanity and indifferent to the trappings of power, she lives in a Berlin flat with her media-shy scientist husband Joachim Sauer, shops in a local supermarket and spends holidays hiking in the Alps. When international newspapers, after Trump’s surprise victory last year, declared Merkel the new torch-bearer of liberal democracy, she waved off the accolade as “grotesque and absurd”.
Though frequently criticised for sitting out tough challenges, Merkel has punctuated her reign with bold decisions — from scrapping nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima disaster to opening German borders to more than a million asylum seekers since 2015. But the migrant influx cost her dearly, both with voters and EU neighbours, and may one day come to be seen as the beginning of the end for Merkel.
Merkel was born Angela Dorothea Kasner in 1954 in the northern port city of Hamburg. Weeks later her father, a leftist Lutheran clergyman, moved the family to a small town in the communist East at a time when most people were headed the other way. Biographers say life in a police state taught Merkel to hide her true thoughts behind a poker face.
Like most students, she joined the state’s socialist youth movement but rejected an offer to inform for the Stasi secret police while also staying clear of risky pro-democracy activism. A top student, she excelled in Russian, which would later help her keep up the dialogue with President Vladimir Putin, who was a KGB officer in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. During that momentous upheaval, Merkel joined the nascent Democratic Awakening group, which later merged with the Christian Democrats (CDU) of then-chancellor Helmut Kohl, who fondly if patronisingly dubbed Merkel his “girl”.
Merkel’s mentor was not the last politician to underestimate her and pay the price. When Kohl became embroiled in a campaign finance scandal in 1999, Merkel openly urged her party to drop the self-declared “old warhorse”. The move, which has been described as “Merkelvellian”, kicked off her meteoric rise.
Until recently she was seen likely to beat the 16-year reign of Kohl, but since the overnight collapse of coalition talks, all bets are off.