Angela Merkel struggles to form coalition

Angela Merkel. Photo: Boris Roessler

Angela Merkel's power has taken a blow in the wake of the German election. Here Tony Paterson reports from Berlin on the new shape of German politics.

Angela Merkel may have been responsible for the worst German conservative general election performance in almost 70 years but she is not showing much remorse about it. In the wake of her ruling Christian Democratic party's humiliation last month the German chancellor astounded her critics by declaring: 'I can't see what we should now be doing differently.' Blinded perhaps by the admiration of many Germans and even the Pope for her courageous decision to take in more than a million refugees in 2015, Merkel has so far chosen to remain aloof about the consequences of her political block's disastrous poll performance. Her conservatives still hold the highest number of parliamentary seats, yet her own Christian Democrats (CDU) and her Bavarian conservative coalition partners, the Christian Social Union (CSU) lost nearly 9% of the vote in what was their worst performance since 1949. More than a million traditionally conservative and Merkel voters switched their allegiance to the newcomer on the German political block, the far right and xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD). Immigration and the refugees were the chief reasons for the electorate's swing to the far right, but as Der Spiegel magazine remarked last week, Merkel's party is almost in denial over the issue: 'Merkel's people have lots of reasons for their party's poor performance yet they won't address the argument that conservative voters simply don't want uncontrolled immigration.' The AfD benefited from that unaddressed argument and picked up 12.6% of the vote. But as none of Germany's established parties will consider forming a alliance with a far right party with attitudes reminiscent of the Nazi era, the AfD remains barred from wielding real political power. Yet the AfD's first-time presence in a German national parliament has made Merkel's task of forming a new and workable coalition government arduous to say the least. In Berlin pundits are asking: 'Will Germany have a functioning government in time for Christmas?' In post-election Berlin the big established parties are traumatised. The Social Democrats formed two grand coalition governments with Merkel during her 12-year tenure, but after suffering their worst-ever election result last month they have categorically ruled out another grand coalition. With their candidate, Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament leader, they won a mere 20% of the vote. Schulz says that if his party formed another grand coalition it would become so devoid of profile as to risk political obliteration. It now wants to sharpen its image in opposition. That leaves Merkel with no option but to try and form a so-called 'Jamaica coalition' with Germany's smaller vote-winning parties: the Greens and the business friendly liberal Free Democrats who have re-entered parliament after a four-year absence (Jamaica coalition reflects the colours of the Caribbean island's flag: black for the Germany's conservatives, Green for the environmentalists and yellow, the colour of the Free Democrats). Yet the policy differences between all four contending parties are big and if Merkel wants such an alliance, she will be obliged to alter course or compromise on key policy issues which until now have been the hallmarks of her tenure. Massive pressure from the Bavarian CSU has already obliged Merkel to agree to substantially toughen up immigration rules. The measures are designed to pacify Bavaria's conservatives. Shocked CSU leaders looked on in horror last month as the AfD took 12.4% of the vote in Bavaria. Ilse Aigner, the state's CSU economics minister described the result as a 'catastrophe'. The CSU is a deeply conservative party with Catholic roots. It has held power in Bavaria with absolute majority for decades. The party's credo was once 'we should afford no room for a party that is to the right of the CSU'. But with state elections in Bavaria next year CSU is now terrified by the prospect of losing even more votes to the AfD. It has even insisted that the term conservative should be become 'sexier'. Under a deal reached between Merkel's CDU and the CSU at the weekend Germany will for the first time aim to limit the number of new immigrants to 200,000 a year. Merkel has also committed herself to special refugee detention centres countrywide which should speed up the expulsion of rejected asylum seekers. Germany will also maintain immigration controls at its own borders and widen the number of countries it considers 'safe' for the return of unwanted asylum applicants. Merkel has described the agreement as a 'very good basis' on which to start Jamaica coalition talks. But the deal could pose a threat to the idea of a 'Jamaica' coalition. Although the immigration proposals would be approved by the Free Democrats, they look set to be strongly opposed by the Greens who claim that they are an attempt to undermine the fundamental right to asylum outlined in German's constitution. Green co-leader Katrin Goering-Eckhardt warned that Merkel's new proposals would not survive the conservatives' first coalition talks with the Greens and Free Democrats. 'These are all points which we have so far rejected,' added Simone Peter, another Green party leader. Bavaria's CSU interior minister Jochim Herrmann argues meanwhile that the Greens 'even object when a convicted rapist is sent back to Afghanistan'. Clashes between the conservative Bavarians and the Greens also appear inevitable on other key issues. Bavaria is the home of the car giant BMW and a third of the state's jobs are dependent on the automobile industry. Not surprisingly, the Bavarian CSU strongly objects to Green demands for stringent car emission controls. Even if Merkel manages to make a 'Jamaica' work, such an alliance would not bode well for her hopes of joining President Macron in his plans to shore up Europe and its Eurozone. Christian Lindner, the Free Democrat leader who would most likely become Germany's new 'Jamaica coalition' finance minister has set his heart against Germany signing up to anything that smacks of a cash 'transfer union' in Europe. Macron is widely reported to have said that if the liberals join Merkel's government he would be 'dead'.

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