It is now 171 days since the German general election, and the richest country in Europe has yet to acquire a new government. Even by the standards of the German political class, this is rather slow.
One cannot help being reminded of a story by Franz Grillparzer, the Austrian dramatist, for which I am indebted to Thomas Kielinger, veteran interpreter of Anglo-German affairs.
A German dies, and is on his way to heaven when he comes to a fork in the road. According to the signpost, one fork leads to “Heaven”, the other to “Lectures About Heaven”. Naturally he chooses the lectures.
The acting Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has recently persuaded the Social Democrats (SPD) – her former coalition partners – to opt for “exploratory talks” with her own Christian Democrats (CDU) about forming a new coalition.
Unfortunately for both parties, these talks do not qualify as “Lectures About Heaven”. They might more aptly be described as “Lectures About Purgatory”.
For the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats formed a “grand coalition” government after the 2013 general election, and at the election last September, both parties received heavy punishment at the hands of dissatisfied voters.
The likelihood is that if they were now to renew this coalition, they would suffer further heavy punishment at the next election. Why vote for the Social Democrats (who in 2017 dropped to 20 per cent, their lowest share of the vote since 1933) if they are once again going to make Merkel Chancellor?
Meanwhile, many Christian Democrats (whose vote fell by almost nine points to just under 33 per cent, the lowest since 1949) have run out of patience with Merkel. They have come to believe she is not really a conservative at all. When presented with a choice, she always opts to steal the Left’s clothes.
This inscrutable woman, who spent the first 35 years of her life living under communism, and was in a sauna rather than on the streets when the Berlin Wall came down, decided to get the reunited Germany out of nuclear power, and more recently to open the country’s borders to refugees.
She also saved the Euro from collapse, another project about which many German conservatives have deep misgivings. In 2013 some of them formed Alternative für Deutschland, and campaigned with striking lack of success for Germany’s departure from the Euro.
To the horror of its founders, AfD then picked up the refugee issue and pursued a far more populist agenda. Last September, it won almost 13 per cent of the vote, and entered the Bundestag for the first time.
In recent days, AfD has been involved in an inglorious controversy about anti-Islamic tweets. Respectable members of the political class want nothing to do with it, but it offers a haven for voters who are fed up with the respectable political parties.
Merkel’s left-wing path only made sense when there was nowhere else for dissatisfied conservatives to go in order to register a protest. Now that there is, literally, an Alternative to the CDU, she is in deep trouble.
After the shock general election result, she attempted to form a “Jamaica” coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP), a liberal-minded free-market party, and the Greens. Leon Mangasarian, co-author of Führungsmacht Deutschland, published last year, and a former editor in Berlin for Bloomberg News, observes that if you look through the Sondierungspapier, or “exploratory paper”, issued last November by these three parties, just before the FDP pulled the plug on the talks,
“You will see that it was a total left-of-centre-Merkel-CDU with the Greens project. The few FDP policies are mainly in brackets and make almost no big impact on the whole thing. Merkel has more Marx in her than most people realise. She has pulled the CDU so far to the Left that she’s happiest with a partner either like the SPD or Greens.
“The FDP are a pain in the neck for a Chancellor who, in 12 years, has presided over no big economic or labour market reforms (indeed, she’s pruned back the Schröder Agenda 2010). She desperately wants the alliance with the SPD and is ready to give them almost anything they want. But the opposition to this and to her in parts of the CDU is growing. People like Jens Spahn from the Right wing of the party are waiting for the chance to replace her and move the CDU back to the centre Right.
“So to answer your question of why it’s taking so long to form a government, the FDP rightly refused to play the role of enabler for Merkel’s centre-Left government with her beloved Greens. She was willing to give the FDP almost nothing. The SPD is fearful of yet again being a Merkel enabler and getting no credit among voters for it – even as they ram through most of their policies.”
The talks go on and on because for Merkel, and indeed for her potential partners, no satisfactory outcome is in sight. Oceans of evasive verbiage cannot conceal the embarrassing truth, which is that in order to remain in power, both Merkel and Helmut Kohl, her predecessor as Christian Democrat Chancellor, adopted policies which appealed more strongly to their opponents than to German conservatives who want to preserve the national currency and national borders.
The two main parties, with a pitiful 53 per cent of the vote between them, are in desperate trouble. Conventional German politics is paralysed because being German is still almost impossibly difficult, and being European is pretty difficult too.