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German politics is in revolt against the “Merkel method”

POLITICS has broken out in Germany. It has taken the country’s leading parties an unprecedented four-and-a-half months to reach a coalition deal. The Social Democratic (SPD) grass roots are in revolt and may veto the new government in their upcoming vote, the result of which is due on March 4th. Martin Schulz, the party’s leader, is on the way out and on Friday even renounced his claim to the foreign ministry. Meanwhile internal Christian Democrat (CDU/CSU) critics of Angela Merkel are openly slighting the chancellor, prompting her to take the rare step of requesting a television interview (pictured above) to defend her position. It aired last night. Meanwhile a new “grand coalition” of the two main party groupings would make the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) the largest of four, albeit similarly large, opposition parties in the Bundestag.

For many the story of all this drama begins with the “Budapest weekend”, September 4th-6th 2015, when hundreds of refugees set out by foot from the Hungarian capital to Germany, forcing Mrs Merkel—after weeks of dithering—to decide whether or not to keep the borders open. She did so, in a move that would eventually see some 1.2m admitted, boost the AfD and create fractures in the grand coalition.

 

Yet the story in fact began precisely 10 years earlier. On September 4th 2005, Mrs Merkel went up against Gerhard Schröder, her opponent and then the SPD chancellor, in a TV debate. He attacked her ambitious plan to overhaul the German tax system, which was based on a radical “flat tax” concept. In the following weeks the CDU/CSU poll lead collapsed; at the election on September 18th it lost 22 seats in the Bundestag and ended up just four ahead of the SPD. For a moment it looked like the Merkel era was over before it had begun. In the end she became chancellor, but learned a lesson which, fused with a deeper instinct for inscrutability, produced the “Merkel method” that has defined her chancellorship.

At the heart of this method is strategic inoffensiveness. Mrs Merkel has succeeded by offering her opponents little to criticise: few overarching visions, even less ideology, a ponderously non-committal rhetorical style and an “überparteilich” (above-party) reluctance to be drawn into partisan debate or conflict. Her decision-making style is to leave options open until the last possible moment, then choose one and present it as alternative-less (her refugee gambit was a classic of the genre). All of which is elaborated most extensively—indeed to the point of grotesque exaggeration—in the 2012 book “The Godmother”, in which the anti-Merkel journalist Gertrud Höhler describes the essences of what she calls the System M: “value-abstinence”, “theme-shyness” and an elevation of Machtpolitik (the politics of power) over Sachpolitik (the politics of substance). The result is a leadership that has sanded the edges off German public life and smoothed over its divisions. It is a style against which the country’s politics is in now open revolt.

The rise of the AfD is one example. Though fuelled by the refugee crisis, the party’s success both predates it (entering a state parliament for the first time in 2014, for example) and outlived its peak in Germany (the AfD’s poll numbers have remained stable and even grown as immigration has dropped off headlines and down lists of voter priorities). At root the party is a protest against a right-of-centre politics that looks too indistinct and uncontested. It is the old right of Helmut Kohl’s CDU in exile, joined in an often awkward marriage of convenience with genuine extremists concentrated in the former east. The AfD’s leaders know this, which is why they rail against the doctrine of no alternatives and use provocation above all other techniques. They have succeeded by playing the dissenting force in a staid and under-differentiated political system.

Of course, the SPD is also to blame. As the rival “people’s party” to the CDU/CSU its job is to be the alternative that so many voters miss in mainstream German politics. Yet its woes are also products of the Merkel method. For all that anti-grand coalition campaigners complain about the party’s submission, its problem is more the opposite: Mrs Merkel has embraced the SPD’s politics almost to the point of smothering it to death. Her last government's big policies mostly began life on the pages of the party’s manifesto, like the minimum wage, a lower pensions age for certain workers and quotas for women on boards. That the newly negotiated coalition deal is, according to a computer analysis reported in today’s German press, 70% ascribable to the SPD manifesto and only 30% to the CDU/CSU one is not just a favour from Mrs Merkel to her prospective partners but also a reflection of that deeper truth: too little divides the parties. Hence Mr Schulz’s desperate resolution not to serve in the new cabinet and the lines inserted by the SPD into the coalition deal committing the parties to more open disagreements, a two-year progress review and thrice-yearly chancellor’s questions in the Bundestag. 

The Social Democrats’ reluctance speaks to the broader explanation for the duration of the coalition talks, one summed up by a satirical float in today's carnival parade in Düsseldorf depicting Mrs Merkel as a black widow spider surrounded by the bones of past colleagues. Being her junior partner is a thankless and often ruinous business. That much the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) learned in 2013 when, after four coalition years immersed in the indistinct Merkelish blob at the centre of German politics, they plummeted from their best-ever election result to their worst, and out of the Bundestag. That traumatic experience hung over the initial round of coalition talks between the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP in the autumn, prolonged them and fundamentally motivated the FDP’s walkout, without which Germany would have had a government by Christmas. It was that walkout by a party haunted by the costs of working with the Merkel method that forced the equally spooked SPD back to the negotiating table.

For the CDU/CSU the method has worked well enough, propelling the party to three clear election wins since the 2005 debacle (even now, Mrs Merkel remains one of Germany’s most popular politicians). But the party is growing restless. Tensions have built up over the long years of Merkelian Machtpolitik and are emerging into the open, particularly in light of a mediocre vote-share at the election, yet another workaday coalition deal, the concession of the powerful finance ministry to the SPD, the allocation of the CDU’s few big cabinet jobs to inoffensively loyal Merkelites and the lack of hints at a succession plan at the top. Though stoically confident that she would remain in-post until 2021, the chancellor used her interview last night to acknowledge those concerns. For example she suggested that she would also find ministerial jobs for some of the younger, more conservative talents in the party.

To be sure, the Merkel method has provided Germany with stability through a period of major external flux. With its €45 billion ($55 billion) budget surplus and record-low unemployment, the country is hardly in bad shape. But the near-permanent conflict aversion and difference splitting in Berlin has also left it underprepared for future challenges (Germany has largely dozed through the digital revolution, for example) and produced the current drawn-out period of political uncertainty. The weaknesses of the coalition deal—a visionless shopping list dominated by handouts for various favoured, and differentially deserving, interest groups—epitomise this. It should not go on.

But it will not. The difficulties of the past months and growing dissent in the CDU make it even harder to imagine that Mrs Merkel will, in fact, serve until 2021. Eventually she will go, there will be a course correction in the CDU and a space will open up between the big parties. Even before then, Andrea Nahles, Mr Schulz’s successor designate, will probably prove a more formidable SPD leader than her mediocre parade of predecessors. Indeed, the rebellion in the SPD—members are also demanding a vote on the new leader—might turn out to be a down-payment on a new, less stifled era: “We’ve debated more in the past month than we did in the preceding four years”, observes one insider ruefully.

If the SPD members say no, the grand coalition will be dead. That would be bad news for Europe as a whole, which needs impetus from Berlin on, for example, euro zone integration. But it would be good news for Germany’s democracy. In her interview last night Mrs Merkel indicated that she could live with a minority government; in practice it would mean the CDU/CSU negotiating shifting majorities with the SPD, Greens and FDP. Even more than personnel renewal at the top of the two main parties (guaranteed in the medium term, whatever happens in the next weeks) that would contribute to the revival of the sleepy Bundestag and further reoxygenate German politics. One way or another, Sachpolitik is back.

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