It was not long ago that Angela Merkel was being touted as “the leader of the Free World.” She seemed to be without rivals for the title. Donald Trump, besotted with illusions of America Firstism, had abdicated. Theresa May lay buried in the rubble of the Brexitquake. And Emmanuel Macron, just 39 years old and without political or foreign-policy experience, seemed too wet behind the ears to take on the role. Merkel, with 12 years as chancellor behind her and the highest approval rating of any Western leader, was the only plausible candidate. But then came the Bundestag election of last September 23, and overnight Mutti’s invincibility vanished.
It was bad enough that Merkel’s party, an alliance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its even more conservative Bavarian sister, the Christian Social Union (CSU), turned in its worst performance since 1949. Adding insult to injury, Merkel’s efforts to form a government with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens ended in failure when FDP leader Christian Lindner abruptly pulled out of the talks, proclaiming that “it is better not to govern than to govern badly.” However lofty and principled this declaration may have sounded, Lindner’s decision reflected his judgment that the FDP stood to gain more support by refusing power than by exercising it.
Indeed, the perils of power lie at the root of Germany’s current dilemma. SPD leader Martin Schulz had predicated his entire campaign on the notion that his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel’s decision to join Merkel in a so-called Grand Coalition had alienated a substantial segment of the party’s base. Schulz promised that he would not agree to any continuation of the status quo. Many in the party shared his assessment of the cost of sharing power with the CDU. But renouncing power-sharing proved insufficient to win back disappointed voters when Schulz proposed a menu of policies not very different from Merkel’s. In fact, the SPD suffered a setback at the polls even more severe than the rebuke administered to the CDU/CSU. If the key to democratic stability is that the center must hold, it is also true that the center cannot hold if voters feel that it offers them no real choice. A viable democratic center must allow for alternation between two distinct policy agendas. Merkel cunningly blurred the line between left and right, and for 12 years this stealth strategy served her well. But her luck may have run out.
In September’s voting, both the center-right and center-left suffered setbacks. The losses suffered by the CSU in Bavaria were particularly severe, with the party’s share of the vote falling by nearly 10 percent compared with 2013. Opposition to Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees has been particularly strong in the region, allowing the far-right anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to make inroads into the CSU electorate. The September loss undermined the position of CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who had long been under pressure in the region for being too accommodating to Merkel on numerous issues including refugees. Seehofer was forced to cede his post as prime minister of Bavaria to Markus Söder but was allowed to remain as party leader and therefore head of the CSU delegation in the pending negotiations to form a new coalition government.
Meanwhile, other elements of the CSU are likely to make it even more difficult for Merkel to make significant concessions to the Social Democrats. Alexander Dobrindt, the head of the CSU delegation in the Bundestag and an advocate of a strict ceiling on further immigration, last week issued a manifesto in which he called for a “conservative revolution.” Whether consciously or not, this phrase harked back to the ugly anti-parliamentary anti-democratic conservatism of the 1930s. “No one has ever maintained that Alexander Dobrindt had a subtle mind, not even Dobrindt,” commentator Timo Frasch opined recently in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Dobrindt’s choice of words nevertheless reflects the panic that has afflicted conservative parties under pressure from the xenophobic far right. A similar flirtation with extremist rhetoric can be seen in Laurent Wauquiez’s efforts in France to woo voters who had deserted his Republican party for Marine Le Pen.
This hardening of positions on the right can only complicate matters for Merkel, who must find a way to lure the SPD back into a Grand Coalition. The #noGroKo position remains strong on the left, even if Martin Schulz has now recanted his previous position and taken the lead in the coalition talks. A number of SPD regional leaders believe that the party can only lose by allying itself once again with Merkel, while Dobrindt and other conservatives feel that they have everything to gain by toppling the chancellor and turning sharply to the right.
In essence, the fate of a whole generation of German political leadership may be decided in the next few days. The men and women who have dominated German politics for the past five years could see their careers ended if the talks fail. Merkel, Seehofer, Schulz, Gabriel, and SPD Bundestag leader Andrea Nahles could all be toppled if things go badly over the next five days. And if Merkel falls, the whole political complexion of Germany could change overnight, as a new crop of rivals jockey to make sense what is driving discontent in a country where unemployment is virtually unheard of and the economy is strong.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is of course part of the story, but something else seems to be gnawing at the German psyche. Perhaps it is a sense that during the recent period of prosperity, too many problems have been shunted aside. Growing inequality, ethnic tensions, questions of European reform, the rise of illiberal democracy in Eastern Europe, and the ominous unleashing of previously suppressed extremist sentiment at home—all of these things may have provoked worries that the good times cannot last and a reckoning lies ahead.
The next five days will tell us whether the German center can or cannot hold. Of course, pace William Butler Yeats, “anarchy is loosed upon the world” already, even if the German center does hold. Indeed, the primary reason why the SPD has been obliged once again to contemplate a Grand Coalition is precisely the fear that holding the center is the only defense against the anarchy already afoot wherever one looks. It is a moment of supreme political ambiguity, in which there is no obvious right choice and no sure way of avoiding the worst.