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Germany at the Crossroads

After the parliamentary elections in September, there were various possibilities to form a new government. Since neither of the bigger parties had a working majority, they had to seek coalition partners. At the outset, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) signaled that it was not interested in continuing the ‘Grand Coalition’ (Grosse Koalition or GroKo) with the other governing parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Although the governing coalition of the centre-right and centre-left was successful in many respects, the CDU/CSU was thus forced to seek other coalition partners. The officiating chancellor (prime minister) and leader of the CDU/CSU, Angela Merkel sought to build a coalition with two other parties – the Free Democratic Party (FDP)/Liberals and the Green Party. Because of the colours representing these political parties (black, yellow, green) which resembled those of the Jamaican national flag, the possible coalition was called a ‘Jamaica coalition’. However, in spite of intense negotiations, nothing came of them, and finally the leader of the Liberals abandoned the talks because of irreconcilable differences, especially with the Greens. There are still two other possibilities of forming the government – a minority government of the CDU/CSU, tolerated by the SPD, or a new edition of the old Grand Coalition or GroKo. The ultimate alternative would be to call new elections – something that the president has indicated he would be reluctant to do.
There is general consensus that new elections would not change matters very much. In fact all the democratic parties represented in the federal parliament or Bundestag feared very much that the far-right party Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD)/ Alternative for Germany could possible even increase its share of the vote/seats. The Bavarian CSU was still licking its wounds. There was also the feeling, epitomized by the federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that the people had already spoken and that it would not be proper/expedient to burden them with another election.
There are now indications that both Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and the leader of the SPD, Martin Schulz are seeking a way out of the impasse, and, in fact, poised for a fresh ‘GroKo’. Frau Merkel has spoken out against fresh elections. At the state party congress in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, she said that something can and should be done with the election results as they now stand. The SPD, on its part, had abandoned its negative position vis-à-vis ‘GroKo’ on the intense pressure of the federal president, who was previously vice-chancellor and foreign minister from the SPD in the grand coalition. He has invited the leaders of the major parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), Martin Schulz (SPD) and Horst Seehofer (CSU) this Thursday for mutual talks in Berlin to explore the way forward.
The formation of a ‘GroKo’ would help to consolidate Germany’s role in the European Union (EU) and also the world at large. However, it will not only determine Germany’s economic trajectory over the next four years, but also mould the country’s social transformation. With the exit of the UK from the EU, it is necessary for a Franco-German partnership to be the engine of growth in the EU. This is particularly relevant as the United States is vacillating in its foreign policy. Germany has reached the pinnacle in Europe because of its far-reaching domestic policies. Germany’s current economic success is the result of cumulative principled policies taking advantage of favourable external conditions, ensuring strong demand for German products. Thus, significant domestic economic reforms, not only during Frau Merkel’s 12-year tenure, but even before in various coalition governments, capacitated Germany to take advantage of external demand. Germany’s economy can be expected to remain buoyant in the foreseeable future.
Germany’s Merkel-led governments have also contributed in bringing about social change. But at the same time there are palpable divisions in the country. Currently, some 20 percent of Germany’s population of 82 million has a migrant background, and close to five million are Muslim, in the majority former and current migrant workers from Turkey. Most Germans now consider Islam to be part of German society, however grudgingly, and many say the same about migrants and refugees. Multiculturalism has thus become part and parcel of the changing perspectives of German society as a whole, although there are large pockets of resistance. This transformation has been attributed in large measure to the three previous governments led by Frau Merkel.
As a matter of fact, she has espoused many progressive policies of the Social Democrats while underlining stability and traditional values, thus encompassing the major spectrum of German society and contributing to her broad-based popularity. In the foreign arena, she has demonstrated her competence in standing up to both Russia’s Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump. This has contributed in no small measure in enhancing Germany’s international standing and the expectation that it will now play a more substantial role in international relations. However, she did overplay her hand in 2015 by deciding to accept, against the fierce resistance of many in her own party, almost 1.5 million asylum-seekers, mostly Muslim, and push for their integration in German society. The fierce backlash was reflected in the September election results, with both the conservative CDU/CSU and the centre-left SPD being made to pay for the perceived massive ‘intrusion’ into traditional German values and way of life. Especially the SPD is fractured as many members are apprehensive that renewing the GroKo would be political suicide. After all, it recorded its worst result in this election since 1933.
The rise of the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ to the third largest party in the Bundestag was a major shock, not only in Germany, but in Europe as well. Observers hope it will not be an albatross hanging on the neck of German governments hoping to move forward. It remains to be seen whether the government in particular and society in general will be able to master the enormous technical and social challenges attendant on the successful integration of refugees. Domestically, Frau Merkel’s talent at bridging social and political divides will now be tested enormously. Concomitantly, in the international arena, Germany is also faced with major challenges – at various levels, and varying degrees of significance. As the world’s third largest economy and the engine of the major economic and political block, the European Union, it can no longer shirk its leadership role, especially in the face of a declining United States and the self-destruction of the United Kingdom.

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