Merkel’s style shaping Germany’s new government

No one party clearly won Sunday’s election to replace Angela Merkel after her 16 years in power. Yet the leading contenders may imitate her methods of seeking compromise to form a coalition. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor, Olaf Scholz, attend a cabinet meeting in Berlin, Sept. 22.

The political style of Angela Merkel – patient, consensual, civil – is so ingrained in Germany after her 16 years in power that the three major candidates in Sunday’s election to replace her made a point of imitating her during the campaign. With the parliamentary elections over – and no party winning more than 26% of the vote – that style counts more than ever in Europe’s largest economy.

Negotiations to form what could be postwar Germany’s first three-party coalition are due to start soon. Already they are overshadowed by Ms. Merkel’s legacy for iron gentleness in finding compromises.

“No party can do that on its own,” said Armin Laschet, the candidate for chancellor from Merkel’s right-of-center Christian Democratic Union, which came in second. “We must overcome our differences and hold Germany together.”

Talks to assemble parliamentary majorities in Germany across ideological divides are rarely easy or quick. Ms. Merkel presided over one in 2009 that took weeks and resulted in a 158-page agreement among 27 politicians. The coming coalition is certain to be led by either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, both of which predict talks may take up to three months. Either of those traditional parties will require a partnership with the third- and fourth-place winners, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party.

Ms. Merkel’s negotiating style is to be meek enough to listen for the best ideas to float to the top. If opponents need to make difficult compromises, she tries to make sure they do not lose face. She also projects a forward-facing perspective. “Let us not ask what is wrong or what has always been. Let us first ask what is possible and look for something that has never been done before,” she once said.

The best leaders, she says, find a space within which “different interests can be balanced and compromises reached.” They also have an inner compass “that is based on overarching values.”

Her style of restraint and reflection have become a German export to other democracies. In a tribute to the chancellor two years ago, Christine Lagarde, now head of the European Central Bank, says Ms. Merkel’s objective is to reach a compromise that “leaves everyone a little bit dissatisfied but vastly better off.”  That spirit, she added, has “helped reshape our world.”

And in coming days, it may help bridge disagreements between Germany’s leading parties and shape a new post-Merkel government.

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