Merkel's big victory proving a big obstacle in forming German government

Despite having cruised to victory in last month's German elections, Angela Merkel is finding potential coalition partners reluctant to enter government with her.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
German Chancellor and leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Angela Merkel (2nd r.) stands up at the end of preliminary coalition talks between the CDU and the Green party at the Parliamentary Society in Berlin yesterday.

Angela Merkel, the most powerful female politician in the world, is finding that success can bring its own problems – at least when it comes to forming a coalition government for Germany.

She won a decisive victory in Germany's general elections on Sept. 22, with her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) missing an absolute majority in parliament by only a few seats. But the overwhelming victory made the also-ran parties skittish about forming a government with the CDU for fear of being marginalized.

To form a government – particularly the potential "grand coalition" between the CDU and its center-left rival Social Democrats (SPD) that most Germans favor – she will need to persuade her potential partners that joining with the CDU will not come back to bite them.

In order to return to the chancellery in Berlin for a third term, Mrs. Merkel needs to form a stable government, and for that she needs a coalition partner. No single party has run the country since World War II – Germany’s political system is based on the principle of compromise between parliamentary groups.

But the CDU's former junior partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, failed to get the 5 percent of the vote necessary to make it into the Bundestag, the German parliament. A coalition with the post-Communists, the Left Party, is out of the question. That leaves Merkel with two potential candidates: the ecologically-minded Green Party or the SPD, historically the other major party in Germany and the counterweight to the Christian Democrats .

Neither of the two seems too eager to join up with the Christian Democrats.

“It would be bad for the country and bad for the party,” Social Democrat member Myriam Riedel says. “Our campaign program was very different from that of the CDU. We want a national minimum wage, for example, or for gay couples to enjoy the same tax advantages that a heterosexual marriage brings. We won’t get that with Merkel.”

It is a view shared by many Social Democrats, and that is why the party's leadership for the first time has promised to hold a party referendum before it signs a coalition treaty with the conservatives. The German public, in contrast, would very much like to see such an accord. A survey done by pollsters Infratest this week suggests that 66 percent of voters regard a so-called "grand coalition" as beneficial for Germany.

A double-edged coalition?

The country has been there before. Merkel’s first cabinet in 2005 was a coalition with the Social Democrats. But many of them felt they were paying too high a price in the relationship, and when the Social Democrats lost a lot of votes in the 2009 election, Merkel formed a government with the pro-business Free Democrats. Critics felt vindicated.

“Merkel promised us a lot in the first grand coalition,” Ms. Riedel says. “She didn’t keep her promises and we lost support.”

The fate of the Free Democrats seems to suggest that whoever surrenders to Merkel’s powerful embrace finds themselves crushed. The party crashed out of parliament after one term as junior partner to Merkel’s CDU, a first in the party’s 65-year history. It is a mistake many in the Green Party do not want to make.

“We are very skeptical if there is enough common ground for our two parties to form a coalition,”  Green party member Lisa Paus says.

Two decades ago even the thought of such a relationship would have sounded absurd, but the Greens have broadened their program considerably beyond ecological issues.  They were part of two cabinets between 1998 and 2005, but that was with the SPD, which is also center-left.

“At the core we are still a party of the left, and we cannot ignore that in coalition negotiations,” Ms. Paus says. “Mrs. Merkel is smart enough to know that.”

The obvious choice

For many observers though, a grand coalition is the obvious choice. It would give Merkel the broad support she needs for a whole range of projects in the coming years, according to Alan Posener, a political columnist.

“She still has to sort out Europe. It is the number one priority, even if the eurocrisis seems to have abated somewhat,”  Mr. Posener says. And there is the “Energiewende” policy, Merkel’s famous U-turn away from nuclear energy towards renewable sources.

Europe would also look favorably at a grand coalition. It would give them the predictability of Merkel’s course, sweetened by some easing of her insistence on austerity through the influence of the Social Democrats. So the thinking goes, according to Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research.

“The Social Democrats will get on board," he says. "Their main issue is the introduction of a national minimum wage. And you know what? Merkel is going to give it to them.”

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