Merkel adapted to Europe’s coalition governing model
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has decided to retire, a development that is profound not only for her nation but also for Europe. There are also significant international implications.
On Oct. 29, Merkel announced she will step down as leader of her party in December and will not run for re-election in 2021. Her preferred successor is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who would continue on a moderate course. However, the chancellor and her party have suffered major election defeats and growing political pressures beyond election results.
Merkel has been leading her nation with a Grand Coalition involving her own conservative CDU/CSU, or Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union, and the SPD, or Social Democratic Party on the left. The latter is a party with historic roots in the socialist movement, but today without traditional emphasis on nationalization of industry or economic class struggles.
Parliamentary elections in September 2017 were a setback for the governing parties. The far-right nationalist AfD, or Alternative for Germany, Party made significant gains, winning 94 Bundestag seats with more than 12 percent of the vote. The Bundestag, the lower house of the national legislature, forms the government.
The AfD had no seats in the previous parliament. This marked the first time this type of extreme party won parliamentary representation since World War II.
The liberal Free Democratic Party, or FDP, lost all Bundestag seats in the parliamentary elections held in September 2013, a devastating defeat. In 2017, the party won 80 seats and could be part of a future coalition government, as in the past. The left environmentalist Green Party won 67 seats, a gain of four, and could be a future governing partner.
After the 2017 election, Merkel reassembled the Grand Coalition. This is the fourth time since World War II such a major-party partnership has governed.
In the 2013 elections, the powerful CDU/CSU elected the most members of parliament but fell five seats short of a clear majority. Decimation of the FDP, which had been a governing coalition partner, led to the formation of the Grand Coalition.
The decline of the major parties reflects a broad long-term trend in European politics. Political parties traditionally strongly reflected economic class, religion and regional interests and sentiments. With the growth of post-World War II economic prosperity, economic class frictions and associated ideologies including socialism have generally declined, along with nationalism. Religion is also fading in political importance in secular Europe.
Regional sensibilities have generally grown, in some cases with dramatic public and political impacts. The rise of the Scottish National Party in Britain is one example. Political turmoil in Catalonia in Spain illustrates the same trends, including the dangers of violence.
The European Coal and Steel Community, predecessor of the European Union of today, began soon after World War II. Economic integration intentionally became a policy instrument to encourage political stability and peace. In consequence, no single nation dominates Europe today.
There is no reason for alarm if the pace of finding Merkel’s successor is slow. Modern German politics is deliberate and almost studiedly pragmatic.
Germany led by Merkel provides an outstanding example of fiscal discipline and prudence, effective military collaboration in NATO and humanitarian relief for refugees fleeing wars elsewhere.
Her successor will have the advantage of a stable democratic base on which to operate. There will also be the major challenge of equaling the record of this extraordinary leader.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of “After the Cold War.”