German Bundestag Elections: Renewal of the Grand Coalition?

The CDU looks set to maintain their dominance in the German election, but who will become their coalition partner? Florian von Appen presents the options.

Today, German citizens are heading towards the voting booths to set the course for their country’s political future. In practice, the polls leave no room for doubt that Chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will win again. Likewise, it seems certain that the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) headed by the former President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, will come in second.

On the one hand, there is the possibility of a renewal of the governing “grand coalition” between CDU and SPD. This coalition is appreciated by the voters, but unloved in the upper echelons of the SPD, since Chancellor Merkel reaps electoral benefits by steering the government through turbulent times, whereas the Social Democrats are trailing in the polls. The other option is a coalition government between the CDU and the liberal FDP, every other coalition being either politically or arithmetically unlikely. Merkel clearly ruled out a coalition with the right-wing populist AfD and the far-left Die Linke. A coalition of the CDU, the FDP, and the Greens would make a stable majority, but would not be short of conflicts between the Greens and the Liberals.

Whichever party will end up being the junior party in this coalition government, it is an unwritten law that they will enjoy the right to choose a preferred ministry, mostly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but since the Ministry of Finance has become increasingly influential as a result of the Euro crisis, both the SPD and the FDP have been eyeing up Wolfgang Schäubles seat.

Regardless of the composition of the next government, changes in foreign policy are to be expected. Within the SPD,  adopting a more lenient approach vis-à-vis Russia finds widespread support among both party grandees and ordinary rank and file members. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), for example, recently suggested that the EU should consider lifting the sanctions against Russia, even if the Minsk II agreement should not be entirely implemented. Chancellor Merkel expressed herself rather mildly on this issue, and emphasized the overarching goal of establishing peace in Eastern Ukraine before relations between Russia and Europe can improve. Merkel’s silence on the annexation of the Crimea and Russian support for Assad in Syria is indicative here, so some sort of détente seems likely if the “grand coalition” is re-elected.

The FDP’s top candidate Christian Lindner also made the controversial remark that the annexation of the Crimea should be acknowledged as a “permanent provisional situation,” which has violated international law but will not be reversed anytime soon. No matter how the next German government is composed it will find itself exposed to increasing pressure from business interest groups to revise the current sanctions regime – especially since the US government imposed new sanctions that might affect the German economy.   

More troublesome than questions surrounding Russia or the Crimea will be the reform of the Eurozone. French President Emmanuel Macron has called for further integration of the Eurozone by providing the EU with its own independent budget, along with an EU Finance Minister. Although Chancellor Merkel and her Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble (both CDU) expressed sympathy towards the idea of increased economic coordination within the Eurozone, they stressed the need for economic reform and strict monitoring of those states dependent on intra-European financial transfers.

Merkel’s center-left challenger Martin Schulz (SPD), however, echoes Macron on the need for greater investment in Europe, and suggested that financial solidarity should also depend on a country’s willingness to accept refugees rather than solely on austerity measures. The EU issue is emblematic for Schulz’ dilemma; the differences lie in policy subtleties rather than in the overall approach, so recent efforts at presenting Merkel in the public as a heartless Madame Non seem futile. A possible coalition between Merkel’s CDU and an SPD headed by Schulz is likely to resemble Macron’s position on the issue of Eurozone integration.

A coalition formed by the CDU and the Liberal Party (FDP), such as the one that governed the country for most of the time after World War II, is also imaginable. In 2009, the Liberals achieved their best result in their history with a staggering 14,6% vote share – only to lose 9,8 percentage points in the following election in 2013 and thus fail to pass the 5% threshold for representation in the Bundestag. This withdrawal of electoral affection was, among other things, caused by the FDP’s priority of appointing the prestigious Foreign Ministry rather than the powerful Ministry of Finance, which would have enabled them to deliver on the promise of tax cuts. In the case of CDU and FDP attaining a majority, a struggle over the Finance Ministry is to be expected. One reason is that Schäuble, who is notorious for penny-pinching and reliably infuriated the Liberals in the coalition from 2009 to 2013, seems to sit taller in the saddle than ever, as he constantly achieves above-average approval ratings. Seemingly aware of Schäuble’s power, both the SPD and the Liberals will claim the Finance Ministry in the event of a coalition with Merkel’s CDU. The Liberals, however, are more dependent on staffing this post, since tax cuts are still part of the FDP’s political identity.  

Whether Angela Merkel will form a coalition with the SPD or the FDP as a junior partner, we can expect adjustments in the Russia policy. The SPD sees itself in the tradition of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and stresses the historical ties with Russia, whereas the Liberals keep a watchful eye on German business interests. However, the reform of the Eurozone depends heavily, at least in the eyes of Emmanuel Macron, on Angela Merkel’s future partner: “If she allies with the Liberals, I am dead,” he reportedly said, as the FDP strongly advocates austerity measures and spoke out against Euro-Bonds. If Macron’s statement is to be believed, the new shape of the Eurozone will be determined by Merkel’s next junior partner, not so much by the almost certain winner of the election.

Florian von Appen is a graduate student in International Relations at Leiden University.

Photo by Fred_78