Merkel coalition talks crash: What options left for Germany’s ‘eternal chancellor’?

Angela Merkel’s gift for substituting compromise for vision will not bail her out now that deep-seated rifts have appeared across the German political establishment, but at least for the moment, all solutions to the crisis go through the 12-year Chancellor.

At her peak, Mutti (“Mum”) was hailed as a mother figure for the entire nation, prudently and calmly cutting across ideological divides to produce stability and prosperity. But in recent years, it is another word, the neologism Merkelism – to do nothing, avoiding hard decisions or personal stances – that has become associated with the 63-year-old.

That her CDU party both came first in the September election, and scored its worst result in 1949, is indicative of fragmentation and dissatisfaction with traditional parties, and with the anti-immigrant AfD not an option, the talks between the remaining factions have proven even more fractious than earlier dire predictions.

CDU’s Bavarian partners CSU and the FDP have pushed for strict migrant quotas, and restrictions of family reunification, while the Greens, without whom the coalition doesn’t have the numbers, have demanded economically-perilous coal-power cuts, all amid and admitted atmosphere of “distrust” during the daily late-night talks.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats (SPD), facing an existential threat like most other center-left parties in Europe, has refused to prop up Merkel yet again, after seeing its own popularity erode as the junior Grand Coalition partner.

Through the month-long negotiations Merkel once again failed to put forward a clear agenda, and her pronunciations after the FDP walked out at the weekend – that this was “regrettable,” would usher in a “day of deep reflection” and that she would ensure “that the country is well-managed in the weeks ahead” – were generic and content-free to the point of meaninglessness.

Although the rhetorical flourish with which the FDP took their ball and went home – “it’s better to not rule at all than to rule badly” – suggests that there is no easy way back, it is also notable that recent polls showed that most Germans did not support a Merkel-led “Jamaica” coalition, least of all the Green voters, who’d have to compromise the most.

Stick or twist 

The remaining options vary more in procedure than in outcome. Even without a majority, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will need to nominate a Chancellor. Merkel would require the support of a majority in the 709-seat Bundestag in a free-for-all ballot, or a plurality if no candidate can be agreed upon within two weeks. As the head of the biggest party, and with no others but the AfD calling for her resignation, it is unlikely the others would conspire to unseat her this way, though they could humiliate and pressure Merkel by making her go through multiple rounds of voting.

But a minority government is unprecedented in modern Germany, and even if Merkel did agree to push legislation forward, she would be a sitting duck for parties keen to horse-trade or simply smelling blood after the last term, during which the Grand Coalition controlled 80 percent of all seats.

Alternatively, Steinmeier could dissolve parliament, but that would require an identical rigmarole to the minority government scenario, ending with a formal no-confidence vote in Merkel, followed by a new election, which local experts believe could take place sometime next spring. So far, the president seems reluctant to exercise this option, announcing that an inability to form a coalition from existing parties would be met with “incomprehension and great concern” across the continent, though Merkel has told the media that she would prefer a new federal election to overseeing a minority government.

Besides the obvious risk to Merkel that forcing the electorate to cast their votes again so soon could raise irritation with the uncompromising establishment parties, there is simply no evidence that an election could hand the advantage to any coalition. Recent polls have shown the parties barely shifting from their September waterlines.

Yet this is the likeliest scenario in which Merkel will resign from her post – stepping aside and giving a new leader a chance to galvanize her flagging party. But Merkel has systematically weakened her rivals inside her own movement, and explicitly avoided grooming a successor. There also appears to be little appetite for Thatcher-style regicide, particularly as the cautious Merkel has feuded mostly with the CSU, rather than her core.

Nonetheless, even as she has seemed impregnable and was touted as a world leader, disenchantment with Merkel was growing, with the migrant crisis still the elephant in the room, even as the German economy outperforms expectations after years of moderate growth. Stouter political careers have crumbled overnight once a tipping point has been reached. But for the moment, the likeliest outcome is that an anemic Angela Merkel will doggedly hold on as a reduced figure, unless she executes a late-career reinvention a leader capable of proactively tackling the looming domestic and EU-wide challenges she can no longer skillfully swerve.