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November 21, 2017

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Is Merkel's departure the only way to end the gridlock of German politics?

We have now entered a short-lived period of delusion in German politics because people simply cannot fathom the possible end of Angela Merkel as German chancellor. It won't happen immediately, but it is quite hard to think of an option in which Merkel remains chancellor for another four years, unless she scores a triumphant political victory at the next elections. The reason we are in this mess is that CDU, CSU, and SPD, together suffered a monumental loss at the last elections. Only the SPD accepts this.

The SPD decided yesterday that it will not enter into a grand coalition. The party's executive committee rejected it unanimously at a meeting to discuss the situation. Martin Schulz then went to the press and gave a very calm and clear-headed summary of the SPD's position: no grand coalition now because of the disastrous election result; no support for a minority government; support for early elections; no decision yet on an SPD candidate or on post-electoral coalitions. In other words, the SPD accepts the possibility of another grand coalition, but only after the elections - and, we presume, not with Angela Merkel as leader. Then Angela Merkel went on TV and said: no minority government and, yes, she will be a candidate. 

The elections will be held in the spring - given the maximum-60 day mandatory period between a German president's decision to dissolve the Bundestag and the election date. The first post-Jamaica polls suggests minor changes, but we are still within the error margins. If the results produce a similar gridlock, then we are back to the same two options: a grand coalition with Merkel and the SPD, or another attempt at Jamaica. If the FDP and the SPD remain unmoved in their positions, the only way to break the deadlock is for Merkel to step aside. The results would have to be quite different from last time to produce other coalition options, like a straight-forward CDU/CSU/Green majority favoured by many in the CDU now, or a red-red-green majority.

German media commentators this morning still indulge in fantasies that somehow President Frank-Walter Steinmeier can persuade the SPD to change its mind, or that there may be a Merkel-led minority government after all. Unlike Merkel herself, they haven't thought this through. She understands the position of the SPD only too well. And she understands that a minority government would make her dependent on the AfD. If SPD, FDP and the Greens refuse to co-operate on a piece of legislation, the AfD may voluntarily align itself with the government - a situation Merkel wants to avoid at all costs. It is astonishing how seasoned political commentators in Germany cannot get their heads around the changing political realities brought about by the FDP's tactical decision to pull out of the coalition talks on Sunday night.

Over the next two days, the German political system will be going through the motions - Steinmeier will talk to Schulz, and he will also talk to Christian Lindner of the FDP. It is the job of the president to explore all possibilities before dissolving the Bundestag. And, formally, the president is right to say that early elections are, under the German constitution, not a first port of call. All other possibilities have to be exhausted first. But the reason why early elections will ultimately happen is because there were only two alternative realistic options that could produce a government: a grand coalition or a Jamaica-coalition. The SPD said no to the former, and the FDP said no to the latter, and they did so in such a way that they cannot retreat from their positions without an utter loss of face.

FAZ seems to mourn the passing of the minority government option, into which its journalists invested a lot of analytical effort. They still have not quite grasped that it is the position of the AfD that kills it, not some principled objection. We think that the FAZ' political commentator Bert­hold Koh­ler is way over the top when he compares the German political impasse to the Weimar Republic. But he is right to conclude that this is not a constitutional crisis. His colleague, Hol­ger Steltz­ner, the paper's europhobic chief economic commentator, is exceptionally one of the few realists. No, the SPD won't do it, he writes, because of their disastrous election result. The FDP just pulled out because it didn't want to be part of a chaotic government; and a minority government is not an attractive option for Merkel. Hence, new elections. But there are risks for everyone. The CDU might lose because of a generalised anti-Merkel mood. The CSU is in danger. Will the FDP's voters take revenge on Lindner? The Greens seem to have done well out of this impasse. The Left Party and the AfD could both gain votes because of the political chaos. Stelzner's prediction is that Merkel's future will depend on her ability to distance herself from her immigration policies (which of course she won't do beyond the formulaic compromises agreed during the Jamaica coalition talks).

Our other stories

We also have stories on the impact of German political gridlock on Macron's eurozone agenda; on the impact of Brexit; on Renzi's visit to France today; on Sinn Fein's ambitions after the retirement of Gerry Adams; on the relocation of two EU agencies to Paris and Amsterdam; and on a German scandal, currently overshadowed by other events.

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