The Merkel years are done and what comes next isn’t clear, says Carl Hohenthal.
As Chancellor Angela Merkel sails off on her farewell tour, buoyed by a wave of accolades for her shift at the helm of Europe, her would-be heirs huddle at home, hashing out Germany’s future. In the wake of a historic drubbing at the polls, the conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister, the Christian-Social Union (CSU), are unlikely to figure in that future any time soon. The CDU’s decision to send an unsuitable candidate into the fray torpedoed its chances at the polls, but the larger failing was the lack of a suitable program for this federal election. Any notion of what the term “conservative” should mean in the 21st century has escaped this party’s grasp. It will probably take a year or two for the CDU to recover some sense of identity.
The next chancellor, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, has little to fear from the CDU as opposition party. For now, this toothless tiger is unlikely to offer much in the way of resistance. Even so, Scholz’s situation is no bed of roses. Unloved by his party, the SPD, before his victory because they thought he was too much leaning to the right, he has a thorny relationship with the left wing, which calls the shots. These leftists showed remarkable tactical restraint during the election campaign, but are now raring to make their demands.
Perhaps the adage about no one being able to govern against the will of the chancellor will hold true, but doubts are in order. Scholz will be saddled with two coalition partners, the Greens and the Liberals, who are determined to ride their political agendas home. The former put in their strongest showing yet; the latter bounced back from oblivion, sidelining the mainstream SPD and CDU. Those are no longer Volksparteien—parties who represent the vast majority of the people. Their power has diminished to the point where the tail, the coalition partners, could well wag the dog, the SPD.
In the run-up to the talks under way now to form a new German government, the SPD, the Greens and the Liberals agreed that tax hikes and new debts are no-goes. Yet they are equally unwilling to reform the pension system. They do want a lot of climate action and heavy investments in Germany’s infrastructure, but how exactly they intend to spend so liberally without borrowing money or raising taxes is anybody’s guess.
Germany will have a government preoccupied with negotiating the ways and means of cooperation in a tricky coalition while the navel-gazing opposition explores the self on the couch of its political therapists.