Merkel down but not out after breakdown in coalition talks

A headline called it "Merkel's Defeat," but the German chancellor is still standing amidst the breakdown of coalition talks and criticism of her leadership.

German chancellor on shaky ground but has no plans to step aside — for now

Some are questioning the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after talks broke down overnight between her party and the others with which she is attempting to form a coalition for a majority government. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

In the political rubble and name-calling in Germany, the headline was devastating: "Merkel's Defeat."

That was how Holger Steltzner, the commentator for the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, labelled his analysis on Monday.

The Jamaica coalition talks — so called because the colours of the political parties involved are those of the Jamaican flag — had collapsed overnight.

It's better not to rule than to rule badly. Goodbye.- Christian Lindner, leader of Germany's Free Democratic Party

The leader of the Free Democratic Party, Christian Lindner, angrily walked out, saying there was "no basis of trust."

"It's better not to rule than to rule badly. Goodbye."

Just how the strange coalition would rule was always a question. The four parties — Chancellor Angela Merkel's right-of-centre Christian Democratic Union (CDU); its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU); the Free Democrats; and the Greens — are four political groupings with quite different priorities. But only together could they inch over the line to a majority in the German Bundestag.

The breakdown is Merkel's second defeat in two months. The first was the narrow, technical win for Merkel and the partner parties she led in September's national elections. Their score of 33 per cent was the lowest for the CDU-CSU  since the beginning of the Federal Republic in 1949. In just four years she had lost a quarter of her parties' voters.

Christian Lindner , leader of the Free Democratic Party of Germany, angrily walked out on coalition talks Monday. (Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/Associated Press)

The second defeat, on Sunday night, was personal. Just 10 days ago the influential weekly Die Zeit said she had shown almost no leadership in the talks and instead had been "fidgeting."

Steltzner's view is that she had lost the most in the collapse of the coalition talks, but her party, the CDU, stood to lose even more in the coming weeks and months under her leadership.

Beginning of the end?

This may not be the end for Merkel, but if it is, you can isolate the beginning of the end easily. It's on a graph. 

In 2013, 2014 and 2015 the popularity of her CDU-CSU party alliance was consistently over 40 per cent, at times reaching 45 per cent. Then in 2015, it started to drop and dipped sharply at the beginning of October 2015, when the CDU-CSU stood at just 32 per cent. 

A picture taken November 9, 2017, shows caricatures and altered photographs in German newspapers and magazines poking fun at the so-called Jamaica coalition. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

That was just weeks after Merkel's midnight calls to the leaders of Hungary and Austria, telling them to open their borders to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees penned up for days in Hungary. Then the order went out to open Germany's doors.

"The Germans aren't going to like this," a German cameraman in his thirties kept muttering next to me as the refugees streamed across the Austrian border. It seemed a sour and misplaced remark as friendly crowds in Munich applauded the first Syrian arrivals, handing out clothes, dolls and food to them.

Almost immediately, the CSU made its anger public and called for limits on the refugee numbers.   

Another party also seized on the issue. The Alternative fur Deutschland, or AfD, had started life a few years earlier as a group opposed to the European currency, the euro, and to the European Union itself. It now ditched that line and became openly anti-immigrant. Its poll numbers climbed quickly.

The Reichstag building, seat of the Bundestag, one of Germany's two federal legislative bodies. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

In the September 2017 elections, it took more than 12 per cent of the vote.

But Merkel, alone in Europe, stuck to her position that letting in hundreds of thousands of refugees was the moral thing to do.

'Great concern' inside and outside Germany

"The lady's not for turning," was a famous war cry of an earlier European female leader, Britain's prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Thatcher, of course, was a wily politician who often compromised quietly.

And so has Merkel. Having opened Germany's doors, she then put together a deal with the Turkish government to throttle the flow of refugees to Europe from there in return for money — billions of euros. Asylum requests in Germany went from 890,000 applications in 2015 to 280,000 the following year (still a number that dwarfed applications in every other European country).

And during coalition talks this past fall, she agreed to a CSU demand that no more than 200,000 asylum requests be accepted per year.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier all but ordered the squabbling parties to try again to form a stable government. (Axel Schmidt/Reuters)

It was far from enough. The Greens accepted that number but wanted a guarantee on the reunification of refugee families. The Free Democrats and the CSU didn't. The Greens also wanted a quick phasing-out of coal-fired electricity plants. No way, said the Free Democrats. Instead, they wanted a sharp cut in taxes. The others didn't like that at all. Agreement never looked close.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier entered the fray on Monday, all but ordering the squabbling parties to try again to form a stable government. 

"There would be incomprehension and great concern inside and outside our country, and particularly in our European neighbourhood, if the political forces in the biggest and economically strongest country in Europe, of all places, didn't fulfil their responsibility," he said.

The great fear in Germany is of political instability. The post-war constitution was written to try to prevent it. The political establishment cringe at the prospect, thinking it would further reinforce the far-right AfD. 

Steinmeier's talk of "our European neighbourhood" can be seen as a reference to countries like Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, whose leaders have all come to power or hardened their grip on it with nasty anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic rhetoric. And this while refusing all but a small handful of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Many in Germany believe that Merkel would have to step aside if there were early elections. Merkel herself may not be among them.

"I don't want to say never, but I am very skeptical, and believe that new elections would be the better way forward," she said Monday evening.

The talks will continue. Merkel is bloodied but still standing. She is tough and has come through other crises in her dozen years as chancellor. This is almost certainly her biggest test.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.