Germany's coalition government talks resume; Merkel remains in a tough spot

LONDON - German Chancellor Angela Merkel claims to be optimistic about putting together a new "grand coalition" government, thereby ending months of political hiatus.

"I think it can be done," said Dr Merkel after emerging from the first round of "preliminary" talks between her ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the opposition centre-left Social Democrats, or SPD as they are known by their German-language acronym.

"We will work very swiftly and very intensively," the Chancellor vowed.

But neither of Germany's biggest parties are yet ready to agree on the specifics of a coalition deal. So the country's political impasse seems set to continue.

Germany's coalition governments regularly take time to put together. But, since World War II, the longest period Germans were left without a new government after a general election was 86 days; that record has now been shattered, for over three months have now passed since the Germans last went to the polls in September.

The cause for this unprecedented wait is that both of Germany's two top parties slumped at the last elections. Dr Merkel's CDU attracted only 33 per cent of the vote, its worst result in more than five decades. Meanwhile, the left-leaning SPD got only 20.5 per cent of the ballots, its worst result in a century.

The main beneficiary was the Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant movement which rose from nowhere to become the third-biggest party with 12.6 per cent of the votes. To complicate matters further, the new German Parliament includes no less than six parties, double the usual number.

Having failed to forge a coalition with two smaller parties, Dr Merkel is forced to appeal to the SPD, which has already served in a Merkel-led coalition since 2013.

 
 

The snag is that the Socialists are not that keen this time round. They believe that they have lost so many votes precisely because their politicians were seen as part of the establishment, and fear that entering into another coalition would merely make their electoral position even worse.

Still, SPD chairman Martin Schulz knows that refusing cooperation could also hurt his party's claim to shoulder national responsibilities. Mr Schulz's tactic is, therefore, to sound sympathetic to the creation of a coalition government, but demand a heavy price for his participation in order to reaffirm his party's left-wing credentials.

"There are no red lines in the talks", Mr Schulz told journalists as the talks resumed this week, but the SPD would ensure that a future German coalition would implement "as much red politics as possible", he added, referring to the traditional political colour of socialism.

The SPD's demands include the imposition of higher taxes for the rich and the abolition of private health insurance schemes in Germany. The party also wants to push for deepening cooperation inside the European Union, in response to French President Emmanuel Macron's recent proposals; last month, Mr Schulz - who served as president of the European Parliament before his return to German domestic politics - called for nothing less than the creation of a "United States of Europe" by the middle of the next decade.

Chancellor Merkel's CDU has a problem with all these demands; the party wants to remove some taxes imposed two decades ago to finance the reunification of Germany, simplify taxes for businesses, allocate more money to the German military and tread gingerly on demands for closer European integration.

 

But the biggest stumbling block to a coalition deal is immigration. In 2015, in a move which astonished even her closest supporters, Dr Merkel opened Germany's borders to any refugee who could make it to German soil; around one million migrants, mainly from the Middle East, were admitted within a few months.

Most were single men, who now demand the right to bring in their families from overseas. Aware of the huge electoral backlash the potential admission of an estimated further three to four million extra immigrants may mean, Dr Merkel has refused such demands. But the SPD is making the adoption of a family re-integration programme for recent migrants a precondition to any coalition agreement, largely because the issue tends to galvanise young left-wing voters.

Dr Merkel is, therefore, facing one of the biggest dilemmas of her political career. She can either accept the SPD conditions and forge ahead with a new coalition at the cost of alienating her constituency, or she could reject the SPD's demands, form a minority government and risk early elections in which her party is unlikely to do any better.

Either way, what she can't do is engage in further dithering; the latest opinion polls indicate that only 53 per cent of ordinary Germans rate her current performance positively, the worst such personal score for the woman who has dominated the German political landscape for over a decade.