The world can rest assured: Angela Merkel, after some quarrelling among the political parties in Berlin’s next coalition, will remain chancellor of Germany. But she is unlikely to be called, as in the recent past, the world’s most powerful woman. Her manoeuvring room will be significantly reduced in both power and prestige. Merkel suffered major losses in the 24 September elections and will have to manage a brittle alliance of politicians who are unused to working with each other.
The liberal Free Democratic Party, returning to parliament after failing in 2013 to win the minimum 5% of total votes needed to be represented in the Bundestag, has nothing to give away. The party is demanding that it be given control of the finance ministry, a sort of reserve chancellery, and carries some old grievances and mistrust against Merkel. It appears increasingly probable, if not certain, that FDP Leader Christian Lindner will be made finance minister.
Her preferred scenario would have been to continue the so-called ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats (SPD). Instead, the SPD has opted to try to restore self-respect and win back voters by becoming the largest party of opposition. On the same side of the political spectrum is the Left party, a group of recycled communists, though neither has an appetite for working together. So the SPD will spend time rebuilding its strength, though it does not have much of an idea of how to recover voters who have given up on the party.
The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which opposes the euro and mass immigration from outside the European Union, is out of bounds as well. Its success at the polls – 12.6% of the total vote in September, third after Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union and the SPD – indicates that the AfD has left a marked impression on German voters angry at establishment politicians. But this does not mean it will have a major impact on decision-making in the near future. It will take the best part of a decade before the AfD is accepted in polite society.
The contours of Merkel’s fourth government are still being worked out among the future partners – Merkel’s CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Green party, the smallest in the Bundestag – who know they must work together, one way or the other. New elections are an uncertain matter, as the constitutional court has the last word. The spoils of government remain attractive, and the temptation to exchange ideology for executive power is plain to see. But before the public approves of the new constellation – the Greens and FDP have already announced internal referendums on whatever agreements are reached – much agonising will have to be displayed to sate voters’ hunger for political drama.
After that, towards the end of November, Merkel will make her influence felt. This will put her in a position of strength for the next EU leaders summit in mid-December.
So far she has been, perhaps wisely, more of a moderator than a leader. Given the balance of power among the parties there was not much else to do. The battle cry for the next government, and especially for Merkel, will be a resounding, ‘There is no alternative!’
Michael Stürmer is Chief Correspondent of Die Welt, a former Adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.