By Sophia Hunger and Theresa E. Gessler (European University Institute)
In September 2017, Germans went to the polls – almost half a year later, Angela Merkel was elected as chancellor governing with another round of the previous grand coalition government. In this post, we discuss how this new-old government came about, why coalition formation took exceptionally long, and what is new about this new-old government. Notably, a lot of the discussion since the election has focused on the renewal of each of the former and future governing parties. In the second part of this post, we assess the substance of this discussion: Which actors brought about demands for renewal? How does the conception of renewal differ between the parties – is it programmatic or does it target a change in the leadership? Finally, we also summarize what to expect from this new-old grand coalition.
The 2017 election as a signal for renewal & the Jamaica negotiations
Even though Germany’s grand coalition led by Angela Merkel had high approval rates in the recent legislative period, its popularity decreased significantly during the electoral campaign. Consequently, the 2017 election brought losses for all governing parties: the CDU and CSU, led by chancellor Angela Merkel, lost almost nine percent while the SPD lost five percent. Though the coalition parties managed to remain the strongest parties in the Bundestag, the massive losses meant the election was interpreted as a signal for the need of change. Particularly, the success of the AfD, which gained almost eight percent and made it into parliament as third strongest party, was seen as a sign of the rejection of the established parties.
The first step in this process of change appeared to be the end of the previous grand coalition: the SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz recommended his party to lead the opposition rather than join a new government led by Angela Merkel on election night. The coming weeks brought negotiations for a so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’, a government with the CDU / CSU, the Greens and the FDP, while the SPD started its attempt to renew the party in opposition through a series of internal dialogue events with its members. Even though the parties are ideologically more distant than the SPD and CDU are, a new coalition seemed in line with citizens’ frustration about the grand coalition. Briefly after the National Elections, 57 percent of the Germans were in favour of a Jamaica coalition. However, with the ongoing negotiations between the CDU/CSU, the FDP, and the Greens that were frequently disturbed by leaks about internal disagreement, this approval decreased. Finally, the liberal FDP ended exploratory talks for the Jamaica coalition after several weeks in November 2017. The FDP’s leader, Christian Lindner, argued that it is better not to govern than to govern in a ‘wrong’ way, leading to a dilemma for the CDU/CSU and SPD.
Towards a new grand coalition
Despite the SPD’s initial skepticism, pressure to act responsibly and avoid new elections mounted on the SPD after the end of the Jamaica negotiations. Particularly the German president Steinmeier, himself a member of the SPD prior to his presidential election, argued against new elections. Exploratory talks for a new grand coalition started in January 2018 and ended with a coalition treaty in early February. Subsequently, all three parties – the CDU and CSU negotiated as separate entities – had to agree to the proposed treaty. While the CSU and CDU left the decision to the party board respectively a party convention, all SPD members were called to vote on the agreement as promised by the leadership on election night.
Leadership of all three parties were presenting the coalition agreement as a success for their respective preferences. Based on the polls, they succeeded: Voters of the CDU/CSU were far more positive about the coalition treaty than the general population. Overall, 52% of voters saw the coalition as negative or rather negative while 66% of the SPD and 70% of the CDU supporters evaluated it positively. Nevertheless, enthusiasm for a new grand coalition and another term for Angela Merkel was limited within all parties – particularly the youth groups of all parties highlighted personal renewal as a crucial condition for entering the coalition. This became apparent in the public and intra-party discourse during and after der coalition talks between the CDU/CSU and SPD.
Discussions about renewal in the three governing parties
As outlined, all three parties were facing demands for renewal by their members and mid-level politicians. Next to the party members, the development of the polls exerted additional pressure on the SPD. While the CDU/CSU stayed relatively stable after the general election in September, only 17 percent of the voters said they would vote for the SPD in a new election. As the AfD could extend its support after the elections, it even overtook the SPD in some polls. Thus, the discussion about renewal was most fervent within the SPD. Nevertheless, we discuss pressure for change within all three parties.
Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU)
After 12 years in government and 18 years under Merkel’s leadership, considerable parts of the CDU are pushing for a renewal of their own party. At a recent party convention, even Merkel herself was arguing for a renewal of the party. However, many party members are skeptical whether she is the right leader for this project. The long coalition negotiations – the average length of the coalition building process since the reunification was 46 days – have also taken a toll on Angela Merkel’s popularity. Merkel’s approval rates as chancellor have declined since the elections, from 61 to 51 percent. Most strikingly, 49 percent of the Germans think she does a not good or does a bad job, with a plus of 11 percentage points since last October.
Consequently, the actors pushing for change within the CDU overlap with the fiercest critics of Merkel from the right. One important example is the conservative wing of the party, represented in both the ‘Berliner Kreis’ (Berlin circle) and the ‘WerteUnion’ (Union of Values). Parts of the latter were even demanding that the CDU should vote against the coalition with the SPD. They were supported by a group of entrepreneurs close to the CDU that problematized the loss of the ministry of finances to the SPD and the prevalence of redistributive policies in the coalition treaty.
More in line with the notion of renewal is a young group of young economic liberals centered around Jens Spahn. Spahn managed to present himself as loyal while simultaneously becoming one of the most vocal critics of Merkel. In contrast to the ideological criticism of Spahn, the ‘Junge Union,’ i.e. the youth organisation of the CDU, mostly demanded renewal in personnel terms and supported younger Merkel critics like Spahn in the cabinet. Some branches of the youth organisation (e.g. Bremen) even called for a minority government. On the other hand, some influential CDU politicians, like Volker Bouffier und Armin Laschet, reacted to these demands by warning against a rightward shift of the party.
Visibly, Angela Merkel has tried to address the criticism of these groups in the appointments of ministers. The general trend can be described as younger and more female; all ministers will be under 60 years old, making 63-year old Merkel an outlier in her own cabinet. Moreover, three of the six CDU ministers are female. Appointing Jens Spahn (37) as minister for health is widely seen as a concession to Merkel’s critics. Generally, Merkel has made significant concessions to the right of the party, also with the appointment of Julia Klöckner, a critic of her refugee policy, as Agriculture minister. While this will increase internal debates about the orientation of the CDU, Merkel has not given up control of the debate within the party: She positioned a close ally, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, previous prime minister of Saarland, as general secretary of the CDU. Kramp-Karrenbauer will play an important role in renewal debates and promised CDU delegates to reform the party’s general manifesto until 2021.
Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU)
In comparison to the other governing parties, CSU has probably kept the biggest control over party-internal changes. This is surprising, given the party lost more than ten percent of its vote share in Bavaria, the only part of Germany where the party stands for elections, and criticism of party leader and Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer was very forceful right after the election. Seehofer tried to limit the impact of this criticism by interpreting the loss as a protest against the federal CDU’s refugee policy. He promised a shift to the right as quick solution to restore the CSU’s popularity in light of the 2018 subnational elections in Bavaria. Nevertheless, pressure within the party mounted and enlisted the party in a power struggle throughout autumn. The consequence of this was a replacement of Seehofer by his long-time rival Markus Söder. However, Seehofer will switch to Berlin rather than give up power.
Seehofer will lead the ministry for interior, construction and ‘Heimat’, the latter being a new addition to Germany’s ministry landscape. Gerd Müller, who has headed the ministry for economic development since 2013, will continue in his previous post. The ministry of transport will be led by former CSU general secretary Andreas Scheuer, while Dorothee Bär, previously a state secretary in the ministry, will now be a ‘Staatsminister’, a lower-level minister, for digital issues that is subordinated to the chancellery. The creation of this additional post was seen as a victory for the CSU, which was only assigned three cabinet posts in the negotiations. Given the limited and mostly top-down discussion of changes, the CSU has been the only governing party that abstained from equal representation for both genders in their nominations for minister posts. However, Scheuer and Bär follow the trend to nominate young candidates: Bär is 39, Scheuer 43. Both are members of the ‘Zugspitze’ group, called after Germany’s highest peak which seven members of the CSU youth group climbed in 2007 in support of back-then prime minister Edmund Stoiber. Since then, group members have been promoting their career and six of them will now be in influential positions. Thus, while they are young, they are also firmly embedded in traditional CSU structures.
Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)
As a consequence of the electoral result, ‘renewal’ became a project of the SPD leadership as well as the party base. Already in autumn 2017, the party held a series of ‘dialogues’ with members to discuss changes in the party. The resulting paper presented at a party convention a party convention outlines the demand for a clearer profile of the SPD as an alternative. Next to the demand to make social-democratic achievements more visible, this includes policy changes – for example, the document calls for a critical re-evaluation of past social policies such as the Agenda 2010 and a clearer vision for the social changes brought by digitalization. There is also a strong component of organizational renewal, especially the strengthening of participation opportunities for party members. However, similar attempts have been made after past elections.
An important pressure for calls for renewal was the scheduled members’ vote on the grand coalition. The party had already allowed its members to vote on entering a grand coalition in 2013 and, despite his announcement to go into opposition, Martin Schulz already on election night promised a new member-vote in case the party would consider joining government. Once the end of the Jamaica negotiations had increased pressure on the SPD to negotiate about a grand coalition, the referendum became an uncomfortable promise for the party leadership and a pressure tool for other forces within the party. Already at a party convention in January that allowed the party to proceed from exploratory talks to coalition negotiations, the party leadership promised to renegotiate on several issues to ensure member consent.
During the campaign for the actual member vote, most of the party leadership campaigned for the agreement. On the other side, the party’s youth organization ‘Jusos’ and several members of the party-left strongly opposed a renewed grand coalition. This included a drive to recruit new members and a ‘NoGroKo’ tour by the youth organizations’ leader through Germany. Particularly the former showed considerable success: Between new years and the members’ vote, the SPD gained almost 25.000 members.
During the debate on the coalition agreement, joining the grand coalition and renewing the party were increasingly posited as opposite and irreconcilable poles by the opponents of the grand coalition. Thus the idea of renewal became monopolized for a bottom-up project, rather than a joint endeavor by elite and member base. To some extent, the leadership also distanced itself from the project as they nominated Andrea Nahles, a young but well-established candidate as successor of Schulz. Ultimately, almost 80 percent of SPD members participated in the vote that brought a two-thirds majority to join the coalition. Thus, the result was far more unanimous than expected. Most likely, many SPD members chose out of fear of new elections with even worse result for the SPD rather than as a conscious choice between renewal and opposition. Nevertheless, the clear result for the party leadership may have put a brake on the process of renewal: Nevertheless, the selection of ministers made some concessions to the spirit of renewal. The party chose women for three of its six cabinet posts, including the only 39 year old Franziska Giffey as family minister. Giffey was previously a mayor of Berlin’s Neukölln district and, next to Merkel, is the only Eastern German member of the cabinet. Beyond her nomination, Katharina Barley and Svenja Schulze are relative newcomers. The former has been a stand-in minister for family since early 2017 who took on additional responsibilities after the election and will now become Justice minister. However, she only entered politics four years ago. Svenja Schulze has been a minister in North Rhine-Westphalia for seven years but is relatively unknown on the federal level. In contrast, all SPD men in the cabinet – Heiko Maas, Olaf Scholz and Hubertus Heil – have either previously held cabinet posts or high party offices. With their nominations, the party also chose to minimize conflicts as Sigmar Gabriel, one of the party’s most popular politicians and former leader, had to give up his post as foreign minister after a fallout with the leadership.
Where to in German politics?
After a period of programmatic convergence of all governing parties and a grand coalition government that lasted for 8 of the past 12 years, the CDU, CSU, and SPD face rigid demands for party renewal. Looking at the parties’ internal discourse, it become obvious that “renewal” often mean a return to the traditional ideological orientation of the respective parties or was focused on personal renewal. Thus, even though the entrance of the AfD into the Bundestag has put pressure on established parties, change seems to be limited and may prove not to be permanent.
Will the drive for renewal nevertheless continue once the government takes office? One of the peculiarities of the German system is the length and detail of coalition agreement that the governing parties agree on during negotiations. Though changes may occur, the last German government complied with almost 80 percent of the promises made in the last coalition agreement. Thus, the 177 pages of this years’ agreement already outline the agenda for this legislative period. Contentious issues were – among others – health and labour market policies. The SPD pushed particularly for a universal civic insurance and the limitation of temporary contracts, however, only with limited success. The agreement also includes the division of ministries among the three parties. The general media echo in Germany lamented that about the complicated, very technical language and the vagueness of the document which was perceived as written by experts for experts. Thus, also regarding policies, the government still has a long way to go to convince citizens of its capacity to innovate with the fourth Merkel cabinet.
Photo source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/12/angela-merkel-pledges-grand-coalition-for-the-little-people