BERLIN – Barely an hour after Chancellor Angela Merkel saw her efforts to form a broad coalition government collapse, she retired to a private room with two dozen Tory allies. Four weeks of intense talks had just ended, with three deadlines missed. The mood was dark. One of her colleagues stood up to thank her, giving a standing ovation.
It was a polite gesture to mark the end of a polite era. But German policy is now on the verge of entering a more turbulent phase.
The failure of coalition talks last weekend has more than weakened Merkel’s apparent invulnerability and raised the prospect of new elections, analysts said. Although the Social Democrats agreed to meet with the Chancellor’s party on Friday next week – sparking hope, if not of a coalition, then of a tolerated minority government – the current situation may well signal the breaking of tradition German postwar consensus and the dawn of a disorderly and potentially irritating politics.
“The distinctive political tradition of the Federal Republic of Germany is change by consensus,” said Timothy garton ash, professor of European studies at the University of Oxford. That was the stake, he said. “It hasn’t worked so far this time.”
During the four decades that it was separated from the Communist East, West Germany has had strong governments, traditionally formed by one of the two big parties joining forces with a smaller partner or, in in rare circumstances, the two major parties forming a grand coalition. This tradition continued after reunification in 1990, with far-reaching changes – like the labor market reforms of the early 2000s – often carried out with popular support.
It seems more difficult now – four parties have become seven and the two largest parties have shrunk – although not everyone thinks that is a bad thing.
Some analysts say it will bring more voice into the public debate, with the potential to revitalize politics. But that will undoubtedly make governance more difficult, as Germany will look more like other countries in Europe – among them, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands – which have experienced a similar political divide.
Wolfgang Merkel, director of the democracy and democratization unit of the Berlin Social Science Center, said the decline in consensus was a sign of maturity.
“Over the past 30 years, we have experienced disenchantment with politics which can be seen in the persistent decline in voter turnout since the 1970s,” said Merkel, who is not not related to the chancellor. âNow the important issues are being debated again. We can say that it is a renewal of pluralism, of pluralist discourse.
Ms. Merkel embodied this tradition of consensus more than perhaps any of her predecessors. Of her three terms in 12 years, she spent two in a grand coalition with traditional opponents of her party, the Social Democrats. She was the creature of a political center that she made ever wider.
Pragmatic, reactive, a scientist by training, Merkel has rarely looked into ordinary politics. Rather, she was Germany’s first post-ideological chancellor.
But politics and ideology are now back in full force.
The September 24 elections produced a difficult result, with seven parties pressing into parliament, including the far left and – for the first time since World War II – far-right populists.
This result reflected not only the growing fragmentation and polarization of the country, but also the feeling among many Germans that Merkel’s centrist rule had stifled political opposition and healthy debate.
More than a fifth of voters voted either for the Nationalist Alternative for Germany or for the post-Communist Left Party. Both sides have been riding a wave of public discontent over migration and globalization.
“We want to go in a different direction from all the others, that’s our goal,” Beatrix von Storch, deputy head of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, told the public broadcaster. RBB Monday, after the German president urged parties to reconsider their positions.
âOur task at the moment is to bring about political change in this country. All parties are moving in the same direction, âsaid Ms von Storch. “They can join a coalition with pleasure”, she added, “because there are hardly any differences between them”.
The coalition sought by the Chancellor would have been the culmination of the search for a Merkelian consensus, covering the dominant political spectrum.
Straddling the extreme, he aimed to join on one side the Green Greens – born of a pacifist anti-nuclear protest movement – with the free Democrats in favor of business on the other.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats and their sister Bavarian party, the socially conservative Christian Social Union, were to be the glue between the two.
But instead of pointing out areas of agreement, party leaders appeared to bother to point out their differences, fearing that their independent political identities would be subsumed.
The discussion has sometimes significantly deviated from the collegial.
Three weeks after the start of the coalition’s exploratory talks, the main negotiator of the Christian Social Union, Alexander Dobrindt, said that the shutdown of the country’s coal plants, a Green campaign promise, would be “absolutely absurd” .
Green climate negotiator Annalena Baerbock told the Berlin daily Die Tageszeitung that by passing in the corridors during the talks, he whispered in his direction: âYes, yes, the Greens live in their beautiful and idyllic world. “
But it was not the split between the Conservatives and the Greens that caused the talks to fail. It was a surprise move by the Free Democrats, whose party leader Christian Lindner left shortly before midnight on Sunday, citing irreconcilable differences.
âWe do not want to and cannot take responsibility for the spirit of the outcome of the negotiations,â Lindner said. “We would be forced to give up beliefs we have fought for for years.”
An agreement can still be reached. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier started speaking with all party leaders this week, hoping to find a solution. On Thursday, he met for more than an hour Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats, who had repeatedly excluded another grand coalition, but has now agreed to meet with Merkel next week.
But even if the parties agree on another grand coalition, that may not prevent the dawn of a more complicated, perhaps meaner, politics. That would leave the far-right AfD, the third-tallest voter in the election, as the country’s main opposition party – something the political establishment had made clear it wanted to avoid.
On its debut in the new parliament, the AfD immediately signaled that it was breaking the old rules of consensus. On the contrary, he proudly boasted that he would not compromise.
The great dilemma of politics in the populist era, said Yascha Mounk, a professor at Harvard University, is that “you either have to share government with people you are ideologically opposed to or you don’t. majority government â.
“There are no good solutions,” he said.
Another grand coalition would almost certainly cost the centrist parties even more ground and “allow the populists to rise further,” he said.
The centrist consensus of recent years has come at a price – even in an era of low unemployment, strong exports and a budget surplus of around â¬ 20 billion, or roughly $ 24 billion.
“Those who are dissatisfied with the government are unhappy with the two main parties and go to extremes – it has happened,” Professor Garton Ash said. One of Merkel’s common phrases, he stressed, described policies as “without alternatives”.
âIt is perhaps not surprising that the populists call themselves Alternative for Germany,â he said.
Some have said that the return of a heated debate was just what was needed.
Mathias DÃ¶pfner, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the publisher Axel springer, called on the Germans to see a new political climate as an opportunity.
“The country must again get used to the idea that politics can be more than just a maneuver,” DÃ¶pfner wrote in an editorial in the mass-circulation newspaper Bild Tuesday. “Compromise is not always wise, but sometimes just lazy.”
What some see as a lack of stability in Germany, explained Merkel of the Social Science Center in Berlin, was simply a correction of the system, aligning it with its other European partners.
Where two parties were sufficient, it now takes three or even four. The Netherlands, Sweden and Spain all had minority governments.
The challenge facing traditional parties, said Professor Garton Ash, who wrote on the subject in The New York Review of Books, was to win back AfD voters without legitimizing its nativist rhetoric.
In one session, Lindner insisted he wanted those who voted for the AfD to be able to vote for him, a shocked Green politician said.
âThe question is, can they do it without actually encouraging people to go to the far right?â Professor Garton Ash said. “It’s a challenge that comes quickly.”
In recent years, Merkel has become almost synonymous with German leadership. From now on, its inability to forge a consensus risks becoming synonymous with a fractured and weakened Germany.
While Ms Merkel is weakened, with no clear successor behind the scenes, she also remains the strongest leader by default. âThis is the beginning of the end for Merkel,â said Professor Garton Ash. “But it could be a very long ending.”