Is German democracy falling apart at the seams?

Voter apathy and the rise of the far-right have put the country in a fix

AfD supporters in Essen carry a sign saying, 'Never our voice again, Mrs Merkel'
AfD supporters in Essen carry a sign saying, 'Never our voice again, Mrs Merkel'
(Image credit: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union and Martin Schulz’s centre-left Social Democratic Party have struck a tentative coalition deal that could finally give Germany a government, five months after the general election.

But the coalition deal cannot be finalised unless it’s approved by ordinary SPD members in a ballot on 4 March – an outcome that’s now looking less and less certain, to the alarm of many commentators.

“Everyone can see the country’s political institutions breaking down, but nobody is doing anything to stop it,” Slate reports.

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Could the turmoil of the past five months shake Merkel’s iron grip on the chancellery?

Three’s a crowd

September’s indecisive result exposed a growing apathy among the German electorate towards the mainstream parties.

The popularity of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) has tumbled, with combined voter support at less than 46%, Reuters reports citing an INSA poll. The SPD was only slightly more popular than the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

This weakening loyalty to mainstream parties set the stage for the AfD to almost treble their share of the vote to 12.6%, giving the party their first-ever seats in the Bundestag.

The rise of the AfD

It soon became apparent that the surprise surge in support for the anti-migrant, populist party presented a practical problem – Germany’s parliamentary system was not built to deal with such a scenario.

As a practitioner of proportional representation, the country is no stranger to coalition government, but the unexpected rise of the AfD has created an impasse.

With Schulz adamant that the SPD should return to its proper role as an opposition party, the CDU had their eye on the smaller Green or Free Democrat parties as potential partners. But the AfD outperformed the traditional minority parties, picking up 94 seats to become the third-largest party in parliament.

Reluctant partners

With neither the CDU nor the SPD willing to countenance an alliance with the first hard-right faction to enter the Bundestag since the war, there was simply no way for the maths to add up. Even an opposition coalition of the SPD, the Left and the Greens would have come up short of the 355 seats needed to achieve a majority.

Reviving the old “grand coalition” of the CDU and SPD seemed like the simplest option, but Schulz’s party was adamant that this was not possible, acutely aware that four years as Merkel’s junior partner had eroded their grassroots support, Prospect reports.

Not only that, a CDU-SPD alliance would make the AfD the official opposition, the magazine wrote before the election. “For the good of his nation and his continent, Schulz must say no.”

The grand coalition 2.0

Predictably, the compromise reached last week proved offensive to both parties.

CDU officials publicly lambasted their leader for handing the SPD – supposedly the coalition’s “junior” partner – control of three of the country’s five main cabinet posts.

Dissent is also fomenting within the SPD. Schulz reluctantly entered another coalition with Merkel as a necessary compromise to end the deadlock. But his reverse ferret on a pledge not to take a cabinet post met with far less sympathy.

Amid a furious backlash, Schulz hastily announced that he would not be accepting the position of foreign minister after all, but it was too late to prevent a blow to his credibility at a particularly unwelcome moment.

The coalition deal cannot be finalised without the approval of ordinary SPD members in a ballot on 4 March and their support is far from guaranteed.

Another Merkel-led centrist coalition may not be “thrilling”, writes Deutsche Welle’s Jens Thurau. “But it’s better than calling new elections.

Rider on the storm

In the five months since the election, Merkel has “barely expressed a preference for the country’s future, let alone set out a vision for how to improve it”, says Slate’s Yascha Mounk. “If Germany seems to have lost all orientation, the fault for this largely lies with her.”

Yet Merkel’s talent for keeping abreast of the political zeitgeist while appearing motionless is one of her strengths. A cartoon published in the Berliner Zeitung just before the election depicted the chancellor as an expressionless amoeba, blandly absorbing her opponents and their policies.

This willingness to discreetly depart from CDU ideology and adopt rival policies when expedient has transferred control of Germany’s political direction away from parties to Merkel herself, says Der Spiegel.

The difficulty of formulating a Merkel-less vision for the future is further compounded by her sheer longevity. “The younger generation can no longer remember a time when a male chancellor led the country,” the magazine writes.

A last-chance chancellor

But the CDU are keen to avoid re-experiencing the painful and protracted birth pangs of this “grand coalition” – a prospect that looks unlikely without finding a new leader who can break through the voter apathy.

“It is clear to everyone that the chancellor is going into a last term,” said senior CDU official Guenther Oettinger, according to Reuters.

The long-term repercussions of an election that uncovered German democracy’s weaknesses will be exposed in the coming years.

The rise of the AfD has put German democracy to its “hardest test since 1949,” wrote foreign policy expert Contanze Stelzenmuller for the Brookings Institution.

“This has to be the end of the sleepwalking complacency.”

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