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“Idleness is an abuse of power – Our country is at stake.”

Barely two months ago, the German Free Democratic Party (FDP) re-entered parliament following an expensive publicity campaign that attempted to reinstate the role of the FDP as a central, modernizing influence in German politics. The election was consequently riddled with well-crafted slogans of rejuvenation, a sleek, highly polished visual layout courtesy of Berlin’s Heimat agency and Instagram-ready black-and-white photos of the party’s new leader-cum-poster boy, Christian Lindner. To underscore the need for a liberal return after the party’s historic wipe-out in 2013, the FDP focussed on an active vocabulary, as encapsulated in the quote above that graced billboards throughout the Federal Republic. This strategy, which managed to secure a Free Democrat vote share of 10.7%, seems ironic in hindsight – on Sunday evening, after four weeks of exploratory talks between Merkel’s CDU/CSU, the Green Party and the FDP, Lindner removed the Free Democrats from the negotiations. The first federal attempt to create a so-called Jamaica coalition, i.e. a black-green-yellow one, was thus torpedoed.

At midnight, the leader of the Free Democrats confidently defended his decision by stating the following: ‘It has been shown that the four discussion partners do not have a common vision for the modernization of our country or a common basis of trust… It is better not to govern than to govern badly.’ The multi-week build-up to this disappointing conclusion left room for a great deal of speculation regarding the compatibility of the four federal parties involved. During this time, analysts turned not to the liberals when trying to find areas of possible friction, but rather zoomed in on the potential for tension between the CSU, a more conservative Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats, and the Green party, whose policies often stand in stark contrast to CSU practice. Earlier this week, Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party openly criticized the CSU for its broad-brush, all-or-nothing approach to the possibility of reuniting refugees in Germany with their families via new immigration regulations.

Christian Lindner, leader of the FDP, during his press statement outside the Representative Office of the State Baden-Wuerttemberg after the failed exploratory talks in Berlin, Germany, 19 November 2017. EPA-EFE/FELIPE TRUEBA

The clash of the Greens’ environmental focus and the CSU-dominated national transport policy of the last few years further added weight to the notion that the Bavarian-Green relationship would prove to be the make-or-break factor for Germany’s first tripartite government. Few analysts considered an FDP rejection of the talks a serious option, perhaps due to past examples of successful conservative-liberal coalition-building. Some, such as the Zeit columnist Tilman Steffen, even went so far as to stress the supposed complementarity of the different parties as representatives of a multi-faceted, multi-priority electorate that ‘deserved’ the Jamaica coalition and its subsequent mix of liberal economics, Green ecology and conservative social policy.

Hints at the agency of the Free Democrats in a potential negotiation break-down only briefly came to the surface of the German media landscape. One such example, an article published yesterday by Stefan Braun in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, outlined the seemingly provocative approach that Free Democratic negotiators were taking, particularly towards the conservative CSU. Sources from inside the talks described a discussion that was marked by FDP attempts to outflank its Bavarian counterparts with policy suggestions that were even more right-wing than those of the CSU. Lindner, who has recently come under fire from international liberal democrat groups for his conservative stance on refugees, supposedly pushed for red lines on the reunification of asylum-seekers and their families as well as the highly controversial Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada.

These issues had not featured heavily in the Free Democrats’ electoral campaign and thus seemed to suggest a liberal attempt to slow down, or even halt the creation of a cross-party consensus. Indeed, the exact motives behind such a negotiating strategy are unclear.

The quagmire of German politics has thus produced a multitude of uncertainties and standstills that make the proper functioning of the German government seem like a distant memory two months after the election.
Some have argued that the FDP has been trying to encourage further tensions between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, after a strong right-wing AfD performance in Bavaria and a year-long inner-party debate about Merkel’s centrism have eroded both the status of the CSU and its ties to the Christian Democratic Union. Fanning the flames in this way can thus be criticized as a continuation of the aforementioned FDP publicity campaign that attempts to portray the existing political establishment as stiff and inflexible, whilst new energy is embodied in the work of a resurgent liberal party.

The failure of the first coalition-building project of the 2017 election cycle has raised a flurry of issues in the past 48 hours. Aside from the motives and strategies of Free Democrat manoeuvring, one of the most pressing questions is what options the election results of 24th September leave open to the German political system. Assuming that no-one goes into coalition with the right-wing AfD (12.6%) and that the Left Party (9.2%) are excluded from any government involving the CDU/CSU (32.9%) or the FDP (10.7%), the only remaining option for majority government remains a continuation of the previous ‘grand coalition’ between the CDU and Schulz’s Social Democratic Party (20.5%). This alternative to Jamaica has however been ruled out multiple times over the past few weeks by Schulz and other prominent SPD politicians, with a unanimous decision by the party leadership earlier yesterday to resist any negotiations with Merkel’s CDU.

Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel

The logic behind this tactic is clear: 20.5% is by far the lowest election result that the SPD has ever suffered. In the eyes of many within the party, this is seen as the direct consequence of a four-year status as the junior coalition partner in the German government. The 2013 election had witnessed the unprecedented removal of the Free Democrats from parliament after their stint as Merkel’s previous coalition allies. A renewed case of the junior partner effect in 2021 would effectively spell the end of German Social Democracy. If the SPD continues this course of staunch adherence to opposition status the only possible alternative after the last election cycle remains minority government (either black-green or black-yellow), a phenomenon unprecedented on the federal level in post-war German history. The likelihood of such a construct being accepted by the German Bundestag is fleeting. The AfD, for example, has stated that a federal minority government would only be possible after the resignation of Angela Merkel from national politics. Indeed, the failures of the past 24 hours have elicited speculations about the future of both Merkel and the CSU leader Horst Seehofer. The quagmire of German politics has thus produced a multitude of uncertainties and standstills that make the proper functioning of the German government seem like a distant memory two months after the election.

The national focus now shifts to two men, both Social Democrats: Martin Schulz, the leader and unsuccessful chancellor candidate of the SPD and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the President of Germany since March 2017. Whilst the presidential executive in Germany is kept constitutionally weak for historical reasons, Steinmeier now presides over the decision if and when to call for new elections, probably held in January 2018. The politically neutral post he occupies pushes him to the promotion of further talks between all parties in the interest of Staatsverantwortung, or a responsibility towards the state. In doing so, Steinmeier juxtaposes himself with the unanimous opposition to coalition-building of his own party, as embodied by Schulz, who has now called for new elections.

The very real possibility of a snap election is accentuated by yesterday’s declaration by Merkel that she is prepared to be the chancellor candidate for the Christian Democrats in any upcoming election. Steinmeier will probably need to yield to this pressure in the next few weeks unless major reversals of the German political landscape take place, such as the creation of a grand coalition or the resumption of Jamaica negotiations. What help a snap election will bring is unclear as the SPD is still regrouping at a painfully slow pace from a historic defeat, the CDU continues to have troubles both with the CSU and the AfD, whilst the FDP is continuing to craft its image of being an activist party, albeit without governmental responsibility. Only one thing seems certain: The drowsy, inactive condition of German political debate that has permeated 12 years of coalition government — 12 years of a race for the centre ground, 12 years of Merkel — may finally be coming to an end.

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