Eurozone financial markets took a dive following the collapse of coalition talks between three German political parties after September’s federal election. And for good reason: without a government, Germans could return to the polls in early 2018. Many have blamed the free-market liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), led by Christian Lindner, for walking away from the talks, but a simple analysis allows for a more accurate conclusion: the blame for Germany’s political crisis lies squarely on the shoulders of Angela Merkel.
In the aftermath of the September 24th election, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party (along with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU) had shed 55 seats, and millions of votes from its previous result in 2013. The same fate befell the social-democratic SPD, the party which joined the CDU in a “Grand Coalition” four years prior.
In mirror image to the CDU and SPD were the rise of the identitarian Alternative for Germany (AfD), and the market-oriented FDP, both of which had no seats going into the election.
With a badly damaged position in the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament), and refusal by the SPD to link their fate once more to the CDU, Merkel found herself in discussions with the FDP (who she had previously governed with from 2009-2013) as well as the Green Party, to produce an unlikely alliance of Thatcherites, environmentalists and social conservatives. Predictably, coalition talks collapsed, with FDP leader Christian Lindner claiming that “It’s better not to govern than to govern wrongly.”
It’s easy to point a finger of blame at Lindner. After all, it was he who walked away from talks to credibly share governance of Europe’s most important economic power. Such conclusions, however, betray a shallow understanding of deeper issues at play. Namely, why did Germany’s two traditional governing parties (the CDU and SPD) lose the confidence of so many voters?
In short, it was two decisions taken by Merkel that led to her party’s collapse (and by extension, the SPD’s), placing her in today’s situation: Greece and migration.
Following the election of Greek Prime minister Alexis Tsipras in early 2015 a new budgetary crisis emerged as he refused to repay Greece’s debts to international creditors (including Germany). After months of drama, a third bailout agreement was offered to Greece, which grudgingly accepted. This may have (temporarily) saved the common currency, but it did not go well with Germans, a majority of whom did not want yet more of their taxes going to bail out a country that would probably not pay them back. Strike one for Merkel.
As the Greek crisis fizzled out, a second major drama started to play out in the Balkans. Starting in late 2015, millions of migrants crossed illegally from Turkey into Greece, and on toward northern European countries. Rather than enforce the Dublin Regulation, which calls for the member state in which migrants arrive to process them, many EU states did nothing to stop this onward migration until the Balkan route was closed by willing countries (including Macedonia, Hungary, Serbia and Croatia). During this period, Merkel refused to reintroduce Germany’s border or the Dublin Regulation, allowing more than one million migrants into the country. Once again, this ran against what most Germans wanted—strike two for Merkel.
Merkel, whose past political success had depended on her ability to bend with public opinion, had made two incredibly unpopular decisions within one mandate. Moreover, the SPD had governed alongside her during these years, impacting their popularity as well.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Germany’s two largest parties were punished this past election. It also comes as no surprise that parties championing the two issues that most damaged Merkel’s last mandate (the FDP is against further bailouts and the AfD is against mass-migration) made the strongest gains. That’s how democracy works: if you do something that runs contrary to what voters want, you don’t get re-elected.
Increasingly, it looks like the SPD will grudgingly join the CDU once more, out of necessity. Without another Grand Coalition, Germany will likely hold another election early next year. Polls are currently looking favourable for the FDP and AfD, so if Merkel wants to hold the reins of power for another four years, she needs to convince the social democrats that they have more in common with her than not.
Regardless of what the next German government looks like, Merkel has come out of the recent election without a clear mandate to govern. Germans have evidently rejected her policies from the last four years, and she only has herself to blame.