The paradox of a grand coalition (never so small before)

The paradox of a grand coalition (never so small before)

Geminello Alvi | Columnist and writer
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The crisis affecting Europe's political systems is spreading to Germany, too, resulting in greater unpredictability and instability

The unwillingness with which Martin Schulz obeyed President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's undisguised call to order shows how, even in Germany, politics is paradoxical and has now shifted from traditional patterns. Merkel’s leadership of Germany has actually been described by quite a few commentators as crypto socialist. Indeed, could any social democratic chancellor have pushed through a political agenda like the one she pursued during her last government? Raising the minimum wage, lowering the retirement age to 63 with 45 years of pension contributions, setting the minimum share of women in non-executive boards, and capping rents in specific areas - these could all be described as social-democratic successes. And what of the Greek bailout program, due to end in 2018, and the approval of Draghi's plan to print vast sums of money, despite the Bundesbank? Don’t they also run counter to what would be expected from a Conservative or Christian Democratic chancellor? And her insistence on energy reform, which entails phasing out nuclear energy, despite paradoxical outcomes for emissions, is certainly not a right-wing policy. Even less conservative was Germany's sudden open-door policy towards Syrian refugees, which also opened opportunities on the right of the CSU and CDU to the liberals and the AfD.

Great uncertainty and ambiguous stances

Angela Merkel steered the German government to the left beyond all expectations and only kept to the center in her rejection of the common European budget. It would therefore be logical for the SPD to be thoroughly satisfied with these outcomes and act prudently, as President Steinmeier seems to be advising them to do. But Schulz continues to hold out and is making the situation uncertain. In the negotiations, the Social Democrats are not just demanding that the growing tax revenues should be used for their own objectives, such as reforming health insurance for self-employed workers and making it part of the general health insurance program. The SPD under Martin Schulz has upped the stakes with an extreme scenario, involving more state, more pensions and, ultimately, more taxes. And Schulz' demands with regards to Germany's European policy and the cap on immigration are no less extreme. So, if an agreement were to be reached, Merkel would have to act even more like a social democratic chancellor. Yet -and this is the paradox- Schulz seems to fear an agreement at least as deeply, in the wake of the election results, as Merkel wishes to reach it.

Why is that so?

The answer is obvious: as in the rest of Europe, in the German Federal Republic, too, left and right have become mixed up, loosing their boundaries and evolving into personal parties. As in the case of Renzi and Berlusconi in Italy, and that of Macron in France, politics in Europe has evolved into a clash of leaderships that don't observe traditional ideological boundaries. Merkel is something other than the CDU, and Schulz, on close inspection, acts on his own account rather than on behalf of the SPD. In Germany, political parties are more organized and less focused on the media than they are in France or Italy; yet there, too, the game is played on an entirely personal basis. And this with steadily diminishing electoral support, since a grand coalition in Germany would be as small as never before, accounting for only 53 percent of the votes. In short, Germany is suffering from the same crisis in its political system as other European countries, and the result is greater unpredictability and instability.