It is more than possible that by forming a new coalition with the Social Democrats, Angela Merkel has dug her own grave. Many of her own Christian Democrats are appalled by her behaviour.
“She doesn’t believe in anything,” as one furious German conservative put it yesterday. “She’s just completely caving in to the SPD [the Social Democrats].
“She’s making the same mistake as Helmut Kohl. She thinks she’s irreplaceable, but she isn’t.”
The biggest gainer from Merkel’s coalition (if the deal is ratified in the ballot of SPD members to which it must now be put) is likely to be Alternative for Germany [AfD], which at last September’s general election entered the Bundestag for the first time and became the third biggest party, so enjoys the privileges which come from being the official opposition to the coalition between the Christian and Social Democrats.
Merkel has managed to become a recruiting sergeant for AfD. In 2015, her decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees rescued that party from irrelevance by giving it an issue it could exploit.
Voters showed in September how fed up they were with the Christian Democrats, whose vote fell by almost nine points to just under 33 per cent, the lowest since 1949, and also with their partners the Social Democrats, whose vote fell by five points to 20 per cent, the lowest since 1933.
Yet the same two parties now propose, with catastrophic cloth-earedness, to form another coalition. When ministerial posts beckon, politicians discover it is in the national interest to take them.
The SPD was nevertheless wary of doing this, for it has seen how in recent years its counterparts in France, the Netherlands and Greece have been pushed to the margins of politics. But Merkel talked her old partners round by offering them the Finance Ministry as well as the Foreign Ministry, and higher spending on various worthy objects.
The SPD’s youth wing is strongly opposed to a deal, so a vote by the membership in favour cannot be taken for entirely for granted. But the trade unions are emphatically in favour of renewing the coalition.
Angry Christian Democrats point out that it need not have come to this, if Merkel had negotiated in good faith with the Free Democrats [FDP], a liberal-minded free-market party, when attempting at an earlier stage to form a coalition with them and the Greens.
She made generous concessions to the Greens, but virtually none to the Free Democrats, who eventually walked away from the talks. Once again, she was happiest steering to the Left and offered no sign of sympathy to conservatives, leaving them feeling abandoned, and in need of some other champion.
The danger now is that Germany will find itself with a weak, centrist government, and extremists on both sides will flourish. Merkel evidently hopes to avert this outcome by putting the 68-year-old Horst Seehofer, from the CDU’s Bavarian allies the Christian Social Union, in charge of an enlarged Interior Ministry, where he will attempt to reduce the number of refugees admitted to Germany each year to the target agreed in October by the CDU and CSU of 200,000 except in emergencies.
But in Bavaria, Seehofer is regarded as a toothless lion, and there will be general astonishment if in Berlin he suddenly turns into an effectual minister.
Perhaps Merkel will manage to suppress the many critics she now has in her own ranks, and will lead a strong and stable government. But it seems much more likely that like Kohl, she has at long last exhausted her own followers’ patience, by pursuing policies (as noted here at the start of January) with which the Social Democrats agree, but which antagonise millions of German conservatives.