The Straits Times says

Building bridges in a divided polity

The reverberations from Germany's election held in late September continue to envelop Europe's biggest economy and the euro zone. The polls saw Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and sister party Christian Social Union drop to its lowest share of the vote since 1949, with 33 per cent of the votes polled, representing a fall of more than 8 per cent. The second biggest grouping, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), recorded its worst result, with just 20 per cent. Stunningly for the world, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which was previously unrepresented in Parliament, became the third party in the Bundestag with nearly 13 per cent of the vote - a tectonic development for the Teutons.

"Mutti" - German for Mum - has never had her self-assurance so shaken in the 12 years she has ruled. While it was always known that forming the next government would not be easy, few had imagined how difficult it would prove to be. Dr Merkel's preference was to form a coalition with the Free Democrats and the Greens. But the Free Democrats backed away from her. That has left Dr Merkel with these options: running a minority government, calling fresh elections to resolve the impasse, or creating a "grand coalition" with SPD. Ironically, having cast their ballots, voters now have limited sway over the outcome of the talks to determine the shape and stance of the government.

Dr Merkel, perhaps at the urging of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, seems to have agreed to pursue the most sensible option: a grand coalition with SPD. After initially refusing to countenance a return to the arrangement of the past four years, SPD agreed to resume talks with Dr Merkel to forge a coalition. This is what most Germans also seem to want. An Emnid poll over the weekend showed 52 per cent of Germans back the grand coalition. Should the plan go through, Dr Merkel has an unenviable task ahead of balancing her priorities with the demands of SPD. For instance, she has said that while she stood by her controversial decision to let in a million refugees, there will be no further influx. Key SPD figures want no cap on asylum seekers.

The world will keep its fingers crossed as the key parties thrash out the details of their union. There is, of course, the risk of allowing AfD to be the main opposition voice. But fresh elections could produce nightmare results for Germany at a time when its leadership in Europe is needed more than ever on a host of issues, including Britain's exit from the European Union. The political impasse over the past months also has shown the need for a credible leader to eventually succeed Dr Merkel. Whoever emerges will have to deal with the prospect of unstable coalitions. And voters will continue to face uncertainty on the direction and priorities of the future.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'Building bridges in a divided polity'. Print Edition | Subscribe