Germany, one of the pillars of Europe, has no new government since the federal elections in September. But it has a caretaker government (the old one) and a working new parliament. The parliament got itself a structure to work and is already working (for example voting on the continuation of deployment of the German army in the middle east1). The German magazine Focus even suggests, that the parliament might take on legislation initiated by one party or a group of parties or even outside the program of any possible future government2.
The caretaker government headed by Angela Merkel is also working, like through the launch of the European Defense Cooperation Pact3. It lost a few key faces. Schäuble is now heading the parliament and Merkel’s “chief of staff” Altmaier took over the ministry of finance. Andrea Nahles took over as SPD-leader in parliament and is also replaced. And before this, Steinmeier, now German president, was replaced by Sigmar Gabriel. And it produced its first scandal: Minister for agriculture Schmidt from CSU recently voted for glyphosate, although due to differences with SPD, he should have abstained.
But now, in the third month after the election, no path to a new government is open. This is unique and never happened before in the history of post-war Germany. On 19.11. the head of FDP Lindner ended the preliminary talks to form a government with CDU/CSU and the Greens, because he judged a limit was reached, where his party would have had to agree to positions considered detrimental to German interests. The main point was about extending the safety-net of the Eurozone.
Schulz, head of SPD, who has led the SPD leadership after the election into a No to a new GroKo (coalition between the two “grand” parties), has not really revised this position as of now (it has changed from a “not” to an “open”). He has followed the president’s invitation and met with Steinmeier, Merkel and Seehofer, but he has not entered coalition talks, not even preliminary ones, and will let the upcoming party-congress (7.-9.12.) decide. Meanwhile “European friends”, especially Macron, push for a GroKo4 and the SPD youth organization has started a petition against a new GroKo (with the hope to push a SPD outside of government further to the left). The european Yes to glyphosate5 against the No of the SPD has also not helped this process.
So we have a unique situation, that never happened before. The Federal Republic has seen its share of crises, chancellors had to resign (notably Adenauer at the age of 88 and Brandt after a close aid was exposed as an east-german spy) and majorities shifted due to the FDP shifting loyality between the two bigger parties. But the system to form new goverments always stayed intact and well oiled. It even overcame the rise of the Greens and in the German states the rise of the AfD up to now did not prevent the forming of stable goverments.
Now we have a state of suspension. A new GroKo might happen, but up to now there are is no clear path for such a constellation. A new attempt for a black/yellow/green (Jamaica) coalition, which is wished by many voices affilliated to the German industry, has been denied by the FDP. In the worst case we will see new elections, but such new elections are not expected to clarify the situation, i.e. give either CDU/CSU and FDP or SPD and Greens (maybe also including the Left) enough votes for a majority government. A minority government led by Merkel is a debated option, especially again by forces close to the german industry, but Merkel clearly does not want it (among other reasons she fears having to rely on the parlamentary support of the AfD).
In my view there are two major reasons for this state of suspension. One reason is the trend of loss of legitimicy for the traditional political parties and their replacment through new movements, that can be seen everywhere in the West. In France Macron won the presidential elections with a totally new movement and after the elections transformed this movement into a new party. In Austria Kurz won the parlamentary elections with the traditional conservative party transformed into a new movement and a list of people from outside the political establishment. And in the US Donald Trump is analysed to have performed a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and is expected to rely heavily on the MAGA-movement in the upcoming mid term élections.
In Germany only the FDP comes close to transforming itself into a new type of party (and this from a position, where it had been seen as the incarnation of neoliberalism and lost all seats in the Bundestag in the last elections in 2013). Many see Lindner’s No as a result of the fear of a repetition of this experience, but others see it as an expression of the determination to change the existing system (and don’t compromise this determination for the sake of access to power). In the FDP the transformation shows itself in a slim party structure6 and in the ability to have a fresh and innovative look at current challenges7.
Schulz’ decision after the elections was obviously motivated by the hope to transform his party, but where is the path opening in this direction? SPD and other social-democratic and socialist parties heavily rely on the state for their strategies and aims, so it will be much more difficult for them to build a new movement based on non-traditional elements. Moreover there is not the pressure of an economic crisis in Germany8 and nowhere in the West does the path of fight for social justice create the same weight as the traditional path of a worker’s party did in the 19th and 20th century.
The transformation process has not started in the biggest german party CDU and its bavarian branch CSU, although there are some young innovative leaders like Spahn and there is the example of Kurz’s Austrian ÖVP. The power-mechanisms seem still intact. The CSU is boiling inside, but the change will be no revolution, but a traditional power-game. In the CDU Merkel has definitely mastered the party power-structures and although she has done many sudden changes in her political career, she does not seem to be able to take on a transformation Kurz style. So there is no force for transforming the biggest german political party and we have this situation of suspension. Such a situation cannot last forever9, especially not in such an economically strong country as Germany and in a geopolitical environment that changes faster as we ever imagined …
This brings me to the second reason for the current state of suspension in Germany: the rapidly changing geopolitical environment. This suspension is part of this rapid change, it is a realignment and also a power-battle epressing itself as this stalled government-formation.
In this the german situation is unique. The Federal Republic of Germany is a product of the Second World War. Now this era, that has been created through the Second World War, is finally coming to an end. Its one power, the Soviet Union, broke down nearly a generation ago and the other, the American Superpower, is tranforming before our very eyes. Now the Federal Republic, that for the longer part of its existence had very little souvereignty, is struggling to realign itself. For this it also needs a process of bringing light into its history10, finding its own roots and a positive self-image11.
Politically Germany struggles to find its place in the changing geopolitical configuration. One example are its relations to the United States. Whereas the left is questioning transatlantic relations, the goverment seems to have a more realistic assessment, but also a strategy of trying to work through the “moderate” forces in Washington like Ivanka12 or Tillerson13. Merkel even met with Obama prior to the G20 Summit in Hamburg14.
But it is not only a (geo)political adaptation process, also the german business is trying to adapt and keep track. The german car industry is in big turmoil and currently another icon, Siemens, is shutting down its sector of big gas turbines15.
Much is at stake and a whole era is nearing its end. Germany is taking a pause and struggling to find its place in the evolving world. This is a very difficult process and no rapid results can be expected.
Christel Hahn, president of IRPA
7As to the other “smaller” parties: The Greens clearly have the most advanced internal democracy, but seen from a broader perspective they are rather conservative (protecting their influence) and they tend to be pretty ideological. The Left (except for Wagenknecht, who has a good understanding of modern economy) more or less repeats traditional leftist recipes and ideologies and is loaded trhough coming from the last remnants of the east-german state party. The AfD is very much into reaction to the current situation and not so mucht into creating solutions for the pressing problems of the people, who give them their electorial success. Also they are currently very much facing the problems of creating a political party, like power plays, ideological fights, etc..
8Just imagine a Syriza rising in Germany …
9So change will happen and take any of these forms: a new post-Merkel CDU/CSU, a CSU expanding to the whole of Germany, a rise of the FDP (or a combination of these). It could also be a new party by the “moderates”, who left the AfD (Lucke, Petry), but for now their new parties are not taking off.
11For example: How to positively integrate a high number of immigrants, if this reception is motivated by a feeling of compensation for the many faults of the receiving nation, by feelings of guilt and self-punishment?
13The pitfalls of this path were demonstrated recently: Gabriel visited Tillerson and talked about the Iran-deal the same day the media repeated the story of Trump mobbing Tillerson out of office. And next day Trump tweeted: “I call the final shots”, source Twitter 1/12/2017