Chancellor Merkel’s final term of office is clearly far from proceeding in a peaceful and orderly fashion. After an abortive attempt to form a coalition with the Liberals and the Greens and interminable talks to try to forge an unambitious coalition agreement with the Social Democrats, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) had to do battle within its own camp, with its Bavarian allies in the CSU, before finally granting them stricter control over the flow of migrants. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats (SPD) had secured agreement to introduce a minimum wage and maintain the retirement age without increasing contributions or lowering the replacement rate, while reserving the right to reassess the benefit of their contribution to government halfway through its current term. In an attempt to erase the sad reality of a political class in total disarray, each of the big three coalition parties proceeded to appoint a new leader. The chancellor announced that she was stepping down as president of the CDU, handing over the reins to her heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Meanwhile, the CSU also appointed a younger leader in the person of Markus Söder. The Social Democrats, not immune to this political marketing exercise, appointed Andrea Nahles as party leader. A new political era seemed to be dawning in Germany… until the European elections. The crushing defeat suffered by the SPD prompted its leader to step down just thirteen months after taking up her role.
The years of coalition between the Conservatives and the Social Democrats have brought their voters nothing but disillusionment. The political refocusing resulting from these various periods of cohabitation disappointed first Social Democrat voters and then Conservatives, who are also looking for things to come more into line with their own policies. The polls were not wrong, with voting intentions falling dizzyingly fast on both the right and the left. Long gone are the days when the CDU garnered 40% of the vote and the SPD 25%; the picture is very different today. The Conservative party won only 28.9% of the vote in the European elections, while the Social Democrats’ share fell to 15.8%. This is a crushing defeat for both parties. This political disavowal was further aggravated by the rout suffered by the SPD in the Bremen state elections, which relegated it to the country’s number three political force behind the Greens.
Having failed to revive intellectual debate and chart a course more firmly rooted in the party’s traditional values, the SPD leader ended up losing the support of her own political family. The party is now led by a trio: Manuela Schwesig, Malu Dreyer and Thorsten Schäfel-Gümbel. All three have agreed to serve as acting leaders while ruling out the scenario of a leadership race that should, in theory, take place in December, when the party holds its annual conference.
This new episode in the political saga is fuelling fears of a breakdown in the ruling coalition, ushering in a period of political instability that both Germany and Europe could do without. For the SPD, the priority is to halt the electoral haemorrhage and craft a new, more social and environmental manifesto that could secure its place as a credible opposition. For the CDU, also losing ground among its electoral base, the dissolution of the coalition would mean it would have to form a new coalition with the Liberals and the Greens – a so-called “Jamaica” coalition – the only type that could secure a majority in the Bundestag. A minority government, while also a possibility, is unlikely given the chancellor’s position on the subject, which she has expressed many times. The creation of a “Jamaica” coalition could also come at a high political cost for the conservatives of the CDU. The emergence of the Greens as the country’s number two party could prompt them to opt for fresh elections in which they would do better than the Liberals, putting them in a privileged place in the future coalition. This would also weaken the CDU, which is precisely what the chancellor is keen to avoid. Each of the partners thus faces an impossible choice. On the one hand, the CDU could persist in a flagging collaboration at the cost of significant concessions that would undoubtedly attract criticism from the party and prompt a further slide in the polls; on the other hand, it could take the risk of forming a new coalition following a snap election, though the latter would probably see a decline in its political base. It’s a case of having to choose the lesser of two evils!