On the Road to Right

It’s too early to say "I told you so," but it’s looking more and more like my prediction on the eve of the German election will come true: talks for forming a "Jamaica Coalition" have officialy broken down. Moreover, neither of the two possible liferafts seem available to Merkel. The SPD stands by its earlier refusal to enter into coalition negotiations with Union – so another Union/SPD "Grand Coalition" remains off the table as far as anyone knows – and the President has ruled out new elections, so Merkel can’t have a do-over.

The only viable option is the one I predicted: a Union-FDP minority government – the Bundesrepublik’s first. They are about 30 seats shy of a ruling majority, so it will be an extremely weak government, but it seems to be the only thing that satisfies the parties that matter.

SPD – It satisfies the SPD because they desperately need a conservative foil. The party faces a legitimacy crisis with its voters on account of having let Merkel co-opt a lot of its policy suggestions – especially over the last couple of years that they’ve been members of the governing coalition. To gain it back, it needs to be an opposition party for a while, retreating to the more comfortable position of lobbing criticism at the government rather than having to defend enacted policy. Obviously that is a lot easier to do without the left-wing Green Party in government. It’s a lot more credible as a left-wing alternative to the govenrment the further right that government is. Of course, it’s less than ideal for this scenario that the government be a weak minority government for two reasons. First, the SPD will be exerting significant influence over policy anyway (because a minority govenrment will need to rely on votes from outside the coalition to pass anything), which will tend to undermine their credibility as an opposition voice from time to time. They can avoid this only by being petty and refusing to compromise on anything, no matter how reasonable, which won’t go over well with the German public. Second, the government could collapse at any time, cutting the SPD’s trip back to opposition respectability short. Given that Germany doesn’t have any (postwar) experience with minority governments whatever, this danger is particularly accute.

FDP – It satisfies the FDP because they need to deliver on some promises if anyone is going to vote for them again. Traditionally Germany’s kingmaker party, they were humiliatingly forced to sit out the last Bundestag after failing to meet the 5% threshold. That happened because Merkel looked weak, and strategic conservative-leaning liberal voters jumped ship to prop her up (i.e. to prevent an SPD government). A Jamaica Coalition would likely give them the same jitters, as policy concessions to the hard-left Greens would have to be made. People would wonder what the point of voting Liberal even was, if it only enables more leftward drift than before. Liberal policies have more chance of making it to the table in a Union-FDP minority government.

Union – It doesn’t satisfy Union as a whole in any way, but it does satisfy the conservative wing of the party. It doesn’t get as much press, but Union is suffering from the same crisis of legitimacy that the SPD is. Traditional Union voters don’t see the point of voting for a party that seems to never do anything but comrpomise with the left so that Merkel can stay in office. The thing that makes it tricker, of course, is that the strategy works: unlike the SPD, Union has not only been in every government for the last 15 years, it’s held the Chancellor’s position the whole time. But there are limits, and there is a good case to be made that the effect of all this has been to open the party’s right wing up to the upstart AfD. To wit – Merkel is Germany’s Hillary Clinton, someone so bland and offputting that people are willing to vote for a Donald Trump (the AfD, to complete the analogy) to head her off. The conservative wing of the party – which probably represents its future – will be happy to have Merkel put a bit in her place.

The only player for whom this outcome is a nightmare is the right one: the AfD. Under a right-wing minority government, the AfD loses some of its election appeal, and it also doesn’t get to form the official opposition. It will have reared its ugly head in time to be scary, but too soon to gain any real power. When the minority government inevitably collapses, Union will be in a good position to run with someone other than Merkel as the Chancellor candidate and will be able to make a credible case at that time that voting AfD is undermining the conservative cause.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate any of this. Merkel remains relatively popular. The SPD has its work cut out for it convincing people it stands for anything. FDP voters are not going to be thrilled to be in an ineffective, short-lived government. And for all the grousing about Merkel from Union’s party bosses, there’s really no successor candidate waiting in the wings to take over. Running without Merkel next time means probably losing the government. And if Union can’t win next time and everyone knows it going in, there’s not much counter-incentive to keep voting AfD to keep that rightward pressuer up.

So, this election remains a disaster for Germany and, by implication, for Europe. The argument here is just that a Union-FDP minority government is a better Pareto fit for the relative strengths of each party than the Jamaica Coalition they were attempting to form. Obviously almost everyone but the SPD would like a do-over. The trouble is that the current President is an old SPD man, and so doesn’t have much incentive to grant one.

On that basis, I’d say my prediction is looking better than ever. Germany gets its first postwar minority government. Wait and see.

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