NEW YORK—The results of German federal elections, which took place in September last year, are continuing to haunt Europe nearly four months later even as the nation’s major parties—the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the progressive Social Democratic Party (SPD)—have reached an agreement to form a majority coalition government to end the political gridlock.

The German political situation was analyzed at a panel discussion entitled “A Full Standstill Ahead? The Prospects for Another Grand Coalition in Germany,” at New York University’s Deutsches Haus. Dr. Christian Martin, professor of political science, Thomas Jahn the New York correspondent for Handelsblatt, and Dr. Steven E. Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany, served on the event’s panel. They sought to make sense of the lengthy political impasse in Germany while speculating on the nation’s shifting role in the European and global community.

While the rest of Europe, and the world, has moved on with other business from the continuing Brexit negotiations to the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Germany has remained at a political standstill for over 130 days, only now reaching agreement. Chancellor Angela Merkel led during the period of standwill, but is widely expected to be mandated again as Chancellor by the new government.

Since the earlier breakdown of talks between the CDU, Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens to form a Jamaica Coalition, Germany has floundered.

Each of the panelists recognized the increasing likelihood of a Grand Coalition agreement between the CDU and SPD, which came to fruition earlier this week.This spectre of crisis, in the form of Europe’s crisis of populist resurgence in past election cycles, as well as the still-unfolding refugee crisis, colored discussion of Germany’s political future. Both voters and political parties appear to be searching for a new vision of Germany.

The meteoric rise of far-right, populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) galvanized the 2017 German federal election as they captured 12.6 percent of the vote, solidifying their entrance into German parliament. However, now focus appears to have shifted to the decline and potential demise of the SPD as the major voice of the left in German politics. At the panel discussion, Jahn pointed to the diminishing profile of the SPD, as the party has increasingly sought to champion social issues, particularly that of immigration, at the expense of concerns of economic redistribution that interest their traditional working-class voter base. Both Martin and Jahn forecasted the Grand Coalition as good for stability in Germany, but warned that the alliance further dilutes the SPD’s profile. Jahn categorized the SPD as potentially committing “political suicide in front of our eyes,” with the CDU alliance. Sokol noted that in past instances of Grand Coalition governance, the SPD has suffered electoral losses as they struggled to differentiate themselves from the CDU’s increasingly socially liberal agenda. While no one seems pleased with the resulting Grand Coalition, this period of gridlock has revealed fractures in the seemingly stable German political landscape.

This unprecedented period of standstill has revealed the extent to which generational rifts have become an increasingly salient issue on all ends of the political spectrum. In particular, the SPD deals with an internal party divide between younger, more radicalized members and older, more moderate leadership. Angela Merkel too, a long-standing fixture on the German political scene, seems increasingly vulnerable and representative of a stale version of caretaker governance even as she comes away from the coalition talks victoriously.

Though a new oppositional force within the German federal parliament, the AfD may still disintegrate under the pressures of governing. Martin predicted that this anti-immigration, anti-European “party family will not go away” as many voters are now more attuned to cultural considerations. This gridlock, and unhappy marriage between the CDU and SPD, ultimately reveals a more systemic failure of Germany’s parties to provide the public with dynamic and alternative policies that respond to the disruptive forces of globalization.

While the booming global market and consistent domestic growth in Germany may seem to point towards the minimization of economic and labor issues, both Martin and Jahn argued of the importance of political responses to issues that are increasingly affecting young voters: increased industrialization, the rise of robotic technology, and new labor arrangements such as the “gig economy,” for example. Jahn suggested that the SPD “is living in yesterday,” unable to offer voters affected by the twin forces of globalization, immigration and technological development, attractive leftist policy alternatives.

As the Grand Coalition was finally realized against the remaining options of a minority government or new federal elections, this period of political malaise has obscured the reality that Germany stands on the precipice of a great shift. Although Germany boasts the largest economy in the European Union and potentially the most powerful voice on the continent, the question is not whether the Grand Coalition will succeed. Rather, the question is, as Martin said, “what it means [for Germany] to be in the center of Europe today, especially with the changes in transatlantic relations.”

The CDU-SPD alliance will not set the tone for Germany’s future, but rather change will come from the margins. Martin suggested that in the wake of these emergent cultural cleavages, new political alternatives, instead offered by the AfD or the Greens, will provide dynamic answers to globalization’s disrupting forces at home and abroad.

Photo: Merkel speaking on the day after national elections, 25th September 2017 (Flickr / fotoberlin.net) Licensed under Creative Commons. 

Posted by Emily Edwards

Emily Edwards is the Max Weber Fellow at NYU’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies. She received her B.A. in History from Loyola University New Orleans. She is researching the Syrian diaspora in Germany and issues of cultural and national identity in reference to these migratory flows.

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