Ms. Merkel Struggles to Hold Germany Together
The collapse of coalition talks in Germany is not simply a political problem for the Germans; it portends a period of serious uncertainty for all Europe and the West. In a Europe shaken by Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary, Russian meddling and much more, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany was supposed to be a beacon of prosperity and stability, an indomitable defender of the international liberal order. Suddenly there is talk of new elections and possibly the start of a post-Merkel era.
The deadlock was a result of national elections in September that demonstrated that Germany, for all its economic strength, was also vulnerable to the divisive social forces sweeping through the West. The 2015 refugee crisis, in which Ms. Merkel courageously declared “We can do it” and opened Germany’s doors to a million refugees, also shifted votes, especially in the east, to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which won a stunning 13 percent of the vote.
Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats won the most seats, but they and their former coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, took a drubbing. The Social Democrats opted out of the coalition, leaving the chancellor to seek the support of two smaller parties — the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats. After four weeks, the talks finally collapsed Sunday night when the Free Democrats’ leader, Christian Lindner, walked away saying, “It is better not to govern than to govern badly.”
The Social Democrats have still shown no interest in teaming up again with the Christian Democrats, and Ms. Merkel indicated that she prefers to hold new elections.
The politics will play out as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier sounds out the political players. However it ends up, Germany and the West are in for a stretch of considerable uncertainty on a broad range of fronts in which Germany’s leader of 12 years often had the decisive voice: refugees; the stumbling negotiations with Britain on its exit from the European Union; the ambitious plans by President Emmanuel Macron of France to join with Germany in forging a more integrated eurozone and a European military force; European relations with the United States, Turkey, Russia and China; the Greek debt.
Optimists in Germany and the union see in new elections a potential opening to a new generation of leaders who could imbue Germany with a fresh dynamism. Others fear even more votes for the far-right and the emergence of leaders reluctant to take bold risks or to follow Ms. Merkel’s lead on refugees.
And then there is the possibility that Ms. Merkel will emerge strengthened by the brush with the unknown. For now, she has retained her signature pragmatism, pledging to “do everything possible to ensure that this country is well governed through these difficult weeks ahead.”