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Halftime of the Grand Coalition in Germany: the gloves are off

Christian Lippl / Ed. 18. 2. 2016

CDU/CSU and SPD these days: poles apart

Since the “forced marriage” of the two big People’s Parties after the stalemate in the 2005 parliamentary elections (CDU/CSU 35 %, SPD 34 %, Liberal Party FDP 10 %, Left Party 9 %, Green Party 8 %), the two political partners never differed as much as now in such a wide range of issues. It seems that whatever issue currently on top of the political agenda – the partly privatization of the German railway operatorDeutsche Bahn, the introduction of a minimum wage in the postal industry or of a speed limit (130 km/h) on motorways and the financial state support for mothers staying at home – leads to extensive disputes within the coalition.

In a Grand Coalition with to political opponents forced to work together, quarrels are of course inevitable. But how come the current situation is so tense? We might better understand that if we look back to the past two years.

After the stalemate in the 2005 elections: Who’s with whom?

In the aftermath of the parliamentary elections 2005, various options were discussed, there under the “Jamaica coalition” between the black CDU/CSU, the yellow liberal party FDP and the Green Party or the “traffic light solution”, a coalition of the red SPD with the FDP and the Greens). A Grand Coalition, however, seemed to be the only realistic solution.

All political parties were in complete agreement that a government coalition had to be formed as fast as possible (due to the political compromise culture and the long tradition of democracy, a similar situation like in the Czech Republic last year would hardly be conceivable in Germany). The CDU’s and SPD’s decision to become partners led to two different outlooks: either both parties would use their majority (without almost any opposition) to implement unpopular, but necessary reforms or the situation would end up in a mutual blockade without any progress, possibly culminating in the break-up of the coalition and another preponed parliamentary elections.

Booming Economy: The CDU as the only winner of the situation?

The first year of the coalition was marked by both personal and content-related crises. The Health care reform was considered as the first big common project, and it took the government almost a year to come to a (rather disappointing) compromise.

However, the reform agenda under the former SPD Chancellor Schröder (coalition between the SPD and the Green Party from 1998-2005) finally paid off and resulted in an economic revival from 2006 on. It goes without saying that the current government presented this upswing as the result of its own political decisions.

In doing so, the CDU was much more successful than the SPD. Whereas the latter faced a personal and identical crisis (especially due to the growing success of the new Left Party, a fusion of the PDS, the legal successor party of the ruling Socialist Unity Party in the Ex- GDR, and the WASG, which was founded in 2005 as an alternative to the Social Democrats by the former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine), the CDU enjoyed a constantly growing popularity in opinion polls (up to more than 40 %) by convincing the people that the economical boom is mainly due to the Conservatives.

Angela Merkel: The new Ms. Europe or even Ms. World?

Additionally, the CDU benefited from Angela Merkel’s performance in foreign affairs. Initially, the new CDU Chancellor started in a rather weak position. As the CDU Chancellor candidate, Merkel did not succeed in bringing about a political rebound and the task to lead a government coalition with a coequal, but opposite partner as the first female Chancellor seemed not to be an easy job.

Perhaps it was due to this difficult situation in domestic politics that Angela Merkel devoted herself more and more to foreign affairs. She gained growing national and international recognition for her success in reviving the EU unifying progress (within the framework of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of 2007) and for her struggle against global warming and climate change (mainly at the European Council in Brussels in March 2007 and at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in June 2007). Especially her ability to mediate between the different nations and political leaders was largely appreciated.

Obligations fulfilled – Time to fight again

According to the polls (infratest dimap), about 40% of the Germans would now vote for the Conservative Party because of its performance in domestic and foreign policy. But the SPD regains political ground (after an interim slump to roughly 27%). The current chairman, Kurt Beck, largely brought an end to internal quarrels and differences, particularly concerning the discussion about the above mentioned reform agenda which dates back to Schröder’s leadership. The party congress at the end of October 2007 was therefore characterized by demonstrative unanimity; as well as by hard words towards Angela Merkel and her party.

It seems that now that the main points of the coalition treaty are implemented or at least on the way, the gloves are off again. Both parties criticize each other in a rather harsh way, trying to score the other off. The party leaders apparently lost their patience to incessantly search for compromises with their opposite. Besides, the upcoming elections in the states of Hesse, Lower Saxony and Hamburg in January respectively February 2008 might explain the tenseness of the current situation as well. Instead of cooperation, both sides try to weaken their opposite partner and to distinguish from each other as far as possible in order to do well in the regional elections.

A strong Chancellor needed to bang the heads together

Although the economic revival is continuing, further reforms are absolutely necessary. If the CDU and SPD start already now with their election campaigns instead of ruling the country, the upswing might soon be over, the confidence of the people in the two big parties might decrease and extremist parties on both sides of the political spectrum could be the real winner of the situation.

In Brussels and Heiligendamm, Angela Merkel gave proof of her mediation skills. Now it’s her duty as a Chancellor to mediate at the national level as well. And to remind her coalition partner as well as her own party fellows to come to their senses and to think about what is best for the country instead of what is best for the own party.

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