A crisis brewing in German politics

Dr Oliver Hartwich
1 May, 2019

Late last year, embattled Chancellor Angela Merkel resigned the leadership of her Christian Democrat CDU party and announced she would not seek a fifth term. After a tight contest, the party’s general manager Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer succeeded Merkel as leader. It was meant to be a reset for the CDU.

As it turns out, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s promotion has solved nothing for the CDU and may have further destabilised German politics. Elections over the coming months threaten to bring political chaos to Berlin and beyond.

The problem is Germany’s highly fractured political system. In opinion polls, the once dominant main parties of the centre-left and the centre-right, the social democrat SPD and Merkel’s CDU/CSU, account for just under 50 percent of the vote – combined. 

The rest of the electorate is split between the Greens, the liberal FDP, the hard left ‘The Left’, and the right-populist ‘Alternative for Germany’. Since hardly anyone would consider a deal with the latter two (at least not at the federal level), SPD and CDU/CSU are almost condemned to so-called ‘Grand Coalition’. 

Except there is nothing ‘grand’ about this coalition on current polling. It may not even win a parliamentary majority at the next election.

Many German social democrats had been unhappy when their SPD party agreed in early 2018 to rejoin the CDU/CSU in government. In their eyes, it meant a continuation of the SPD’s freefall. Locked into a coalition with Merkel, the once-proud party would become marginalised further. To placate their own dissenters, the SPD’s leadership agreed to a formal review of their participation in the coalition government to be conducted towards the end of this year.

At the other end of the coalition table, and because of her handling of the 2015 refugee crisis, Merkel had to witness an erosion of her popularity and her power. Both became visible in the second half of 2018. First, her party toppled Merkel’s close confidant Volker Kauder and installed political nobody Ralph Brinkhaus as leader of the parliamentary group. Then the two Christian Democrat sister parties, CDU and CSU, performed dismally in state elections in Hesse and Bavaria.

In these circumstances, Merkel announced her semi-deferred half-resignation. She hoped that under new leadership, the CDU/CSU might once again rise to the 35 to 40 percent mark in the polls – and so she might pass on the chancellorship to her successor.

That may have been doubly wishful thinking.

The first problem is that Merkel’s successor as party chair, Kramp-Karrenbauer, has not turned out to be a big hit with voters. After an initial high in the polls, she is keeping the CDU/CSU in the mid- to high-20s – just at the level that made Merkel resign last year.

It is not Kramp-Karrenbauer’s fault, at least not entirely. She has a practically impossible task: she is supposed to be loyal to the Chancellor while presenting herself as a more attractive alternative. The longer Kramp-Karrenbauer is kept in this limbo, the more her political brand will be tarnished.

The second problem are the social democrats. Their current national polling is even worse than in the 2017 election, which was their worst showing in post-War history. The next few elections promise to be bloodbaths for the SPD.

At the European Parliament elections, the SPD is likely to lose up to 10 percentage points off their 2014 result of 27.3 percent. That is bad. The result will be amplified by state elections in Bremen, which will be held on the same day. Bremen is a traditional SPD stronghold and has never in its history elected a head of government from another party. Well, on 26 May the SPD may lose Bremen too.

Later this year, there will be state elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. In all three, the polls promise no joy for either the CDU or the SPD.

So, what does this mean for the transition of the chancellorship from Merkel to Kramp-Karrenbauer?

As the SPD is likely to go from hammering to hammering in elections, it will encourage internal dissenters calling for an end to the Grand Coalition – even if it means a prolonged period in opposition. Such an end to the Grand Coalition would also be the political end of Chancellor Merkel – but it would not necessarily guarantee a Kramp-Karrenbauer chancellorship.

Even if the SPD remains part of the Grand Coalition, there is no guarantee the social democrats would vote for Kramp-Karrenbauer as chancellor. Because this is the crux: To become Chancellor, Kramp-Karrenbauer needs to be elected by the Bundestag. But why would an ailing SPD coalition partner crown Kramp-Karrenbauer and make it harder to campaign against her in the next election? It is far more likely for the SPD to leave the coalition rather than bequeath the chancellery to her.

Finally, if the SPD pulls the plug on the Grand Coalition or Kramp-Karrenbauer one way or the other, would a different coalition secure her the chancellorship? Theoretically, she could be elected with the votes of CDU/CSU, Greens and the FDP. 

But why would the Greens agree to that? Their current polling is twice their 2017 election results. The Greens would be selling themselves short if they agreed to such a deal. Much better, from the Greens’ perspective at least, would be to sit back, let the Grand Coalition self-destroy and then go into an election campaign.

There are no certainties about the next few months in German politics. But there are likelihoods.

The most likely outcome are bad election results for both CDU/CSU and SPD. This will make it harder to keep the Grand Coalition together. It will also make a smooth transition from Merkel to Kramp-Karrenbauer in the chancellorship nearly impossible.

Beyond that, we are entering the realm of speculation. It is possible there will be federal elections before the end of the year. At this stage, however, it is unclear who would be the lead candidates, who would win, and which coalition government would result from it.

Perhaps the only certainty is this: While the German and European economies are slowing, while Brexit remains unresolved, and while challenges aplenty wait for the EU, Berlin will be absorbed by domestic issues.

And you thought Brexit was complicated.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates