It looks as if Germany, after months of deadlock, is going to end up being governed by a much-diminished version of the left-right ‘grand coalition that ruled before September’s election.
Such an outcome would undoubtedly please Angela Merkel, who despite leading Germany’s largest centre-right party much prefers partnership with left-wingers. Indeed, one reason the liberal Free Democrats walked out of negotiations to form a so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition with the Christian Democrats and the Greens is that the Chancellor had done very little to accomodate their pro-market agenda.
It would also bring Martin Schulz, who recently called for the rapid formation of a formal European superstate and the expulsion of Member States who refused to join, into the German government, which might have interesting implications for the EU.
Whether it will be good for the long-term health of Germany’s famously stable political system, on the other hand, is less certain.
Both of the blocs which form the grand coalition (the SPD on the left and the CDU/CSU alliance on the right) fared badly at the election. The SPD recorded a record low share of the vote, and between them the coalition parties shed 105 seats. Meanwhile the AfD horrified the German political class by breaking into the Bundestag with 94 seats.
It isn’t hard to see how the reformation of the grand coalition could be the AfD’s ideal scenario. First, if the SPD formally enter government then the AfD, as the next-largest party in the legislature, will become the official opposition. That fact alone led many to assume that a renewal of the CDU/SPD pact was off the table.
But it will also mean that the largest vehicle for consensual centre-right politics in Germany will remain tied into a left-leaning government under an increasingly left-leaning Merkel. Whilst it is over-simplifying matters to portray the AfD as simply moving into a vacuum on the right vacated by the Chancellor, they will undoubtedly welcome the opportunity to appeal to disaffected, conservative voters who want to refute Merkel’s slogan that “there is no alternative” to her policies.
That in turn will have a destabilising effect on the coalition itself. Merkel’s credibility took a big hit in September and she will likely find it harder to suppress right-wing critics within the CDU, let alone rein in the CSU, which faces elections in socially-conservative Bavaria and fears an AfD breakthrough.
It seems unlikely that either of the major parties will prosper after for more years of an arrangement German voters dealt a serious blow last year, which raises the prospect of even bigger gains by outsider parties at the next election. It may also start to alter even the established parties – the Free Democrats, for example, may try to harness elements of the ‘populist’ agenda to make inroads with liberal right-wing voters and stem the growth of the AfD.
The prospect raises a problem which always faces those who aspire to hegemonic rule by the centre: that every government loses in the end. If all the ‘good people’ are in government, who will they lose to? It’s a question that must now be being pondered in Germany and in France, where Emmanuel Macron has swept aside the traditional parties of both left and right.
Britain, with our non-proportional electoral system and adversarial political style, is much less exposed to problems of this sort. Usually the two main parties offer voters a reasonably clear choice, and move in and out of government decisively at fairly regular intervals.
Even where a ruling-class consensus does calcify across the leadership of both parties, as EU membership did, first-past-the-post ensured that the mounting pressure of euroscepticism force the main parties to adapt before UKIP were able to establish a beachhead in Parliament. Instead the triumphant outsiders were Vote Leave, a one-off campaign which dissolved immediately.
Done right, Brexit offers an opportunity to restore the strengths of our traditional system. Repatriating powers from the EU means bringing them back into the sphere of domestic political debate and gives the parties more opportunities to offer distinct and meaningful programmes to the electorate.
Come 2021, Germany’s Christian and Social Democrats may be casting about for a safety valve of their own.