Chancellor Angela Merkel called Friday for a quick end to the last stretch of tortuous negotiations to forge a government for Germany, in a race against time to stop her power slipping away at home and abroad.
Formal coalitions talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), their sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) started on Friday.
The talks are aimed at forming what is commonly referred to as a “grand coalition,” bringing together Germany’s two largest parties to form a government.
As she arrived for the final round of talks with potential partners in her fourth government, the Social Democrats, (SPD) she said the country and Europe could not afford to wait much longer.
“We will see to it that we negotiate quickly,” Merkel told reporters.
“I think people expect us to move toward a government and that is why I am entering the talks optimistically and with determination.
“It’s not only about a fresh start for Europe but also for Germany.”
The SPD had on Sunday only narrowly voted to launch formal coalition negotiations with her conservative alliance on the basis of a preliminary deal hammered out earlier this month.
However, the outcome of the talks gathering the SPD as well as Merkel’s CDU party and Bavarian CSU allies is far from certain.
Stung by a record low score in September’s elections, the SPD is torn internally on whether it should once again govern under Merkel.
Its youth wing is energetically canvassing for votes to veto any deal for a new grand coalition – known as the “GroKo” – when the 440,000 members of the country’s second biggest party hold a referendum on the question.
Merkel’s camp wants negotiations wrapped up by mid-February, giving the SPD a few weeks to organise its crucial vote. A government could then be in place by the end of March.
What is clear is that the delay is eating away at Merkel’s influence domestically and internationally.
In Germany, there is talk about the autumn of her reign, even if no serious candidate has emerged to rival her.
“Each additional day where she has to content herself with being just a caretaker chancellor weakens her and the longer the negotiations go on, the more the population’s discontent grows,” said Die Zeit weekly.
A “grand coalition” is a governing coalition between a parliament’s two largest parties. In Germany’s case, it means a coalition between the CDU/CSU and SPD.
Germany’s general election last year witnessed the Merkel’s CDU garner the most votes, but fall short of a governing majority.
The SPD said it would not form a government with the CDU/CSU after the elections, forcing Merkel to attempt a so-called Jamaica coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats.
Exploratory coalition talks with the Greens and FDP fell through in November, forcing Merkel’s conservatives to pivot to former their former coalition partners, the SPD.
On Sunday, the SPD narrowly voted to go ahead with formal coalition talks despite a major push from the centre-left party’s youth wing to back out of a possible “grand coalition.”
Party leaders upbeat
Merkel was optimistic about the talks, saying: “People expect us to move towards forming a government and that’s why I’m very optimistic and very determined in these discussions that we reach a result and I believe that is achievable in a relatively manageable time frame.”
SPD leader Martin Schulz said that the forming a stable government is pivotal for the country’s success, saying: “Given the challenges from China and the US, the EU needs a strong, pro-European Germany.”
Horst Seehofer, who leads the CSU, was upbeat ahead of the talks, saying: “We will do everything in our power today and in the coming weeks to arrive at a good result.”
In short, yes. The previous government was the third “grand coalition” since Germany adopted its current political system. Germany also witnessed “grand coalitions” in the 1960s and 2000s.
Last year’s elections witnessed the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) become the third-largest party in parliament. They would become the largest opposition party if a “grand coalition” government is formed. The Left Party, parliament’s fifth-largest party, would also play a key opposition role to a Merkel-led government.
‘Things have changed’
And abroad, attention is drifting to France and its young leader Emmanuel Macron, who is increasingly hailed as the go-to leader in Europe.
Nowhere was the contrast between Macron and Merkel’s position more obvious than at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting of political and economic leaders in Davos this week, where analysts said the French leader stole the show from the veteran chancellor.
“Merkel’s position could be further weakened on the international stage – at least that’s the impression given at Davos,” noted Spiegel weekly, noting that “Macron meanwhile is increasingly taking on the role of the leader of the Europeans.”
In fact, Merkel herself acknowledged to the Davos crowd that the political impasse in Germany is hampering Europe’s biggest economy from taking action.
She said she was impressed by “how things have changed in four months, at how the world is developing quickly and that a country that wants to contribute to shaping globalisation needs to be able to act 24 hours a day”.
Just a few months ago, Merkel appeared to be at the top of her game, with some commentators even crowning her “Leader of the Free World” after the arrival of Donald Trump as US president.
Looking ahead to Trump’s speech in Davos later Friday, SPD leader Martin Schulz said as he headed to the talks with Merkel that “given the challenges coming from China, from the United States, we need a strong, pro-European Germany”.
But even sitting at the negotiating table with Merkel is a massive climb down for Schulz, a former European Parliament chief, who had vowed after elections to take his party into opposition.
In more bad news for the centre-left party’s leadership, a preliminary blueprint hammered out with the conservatives has been savaged for not adequately reflecting the SPD’s social agenda.
To have a chance at winning the party base’s approval, Schulz and the SPD leadership would have to extract further concessions from the conservatives, including tougher restrictions on short-term work contracts or a universal health insurance system.
Not only are the stakes high for Merkel, but also for Schulz and the SPD, particularly if Germany were forced to return to the ballot box.
Polls this week showed support for the SPD plunging to a record low of 18 percentage points, while Merkel’s conservative alliance scored 31.5 per cent – both apparently losing ground from September.