Merkel's Challenge Can Germany Make an Unwieldy Coalition Work?

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Part 2: A Model for Renewal


Among the leaders of the parties that might join forces in a Jamaica coalition, Lindner's position is unique. No other party leader's position is as undisputed within their party as his, the product of Lindner having led the FDP back from the political desert to a more-than-respectable 10.7 percent result last Sunday. At the same time, Lindner has to defeat a unique enemy: his party's own past. The FDP leadership still has traumatic memories of that 2009-2013 alliance with Merkel.

The party is thus determined to do everything differently in the upcoming negotiations than they did eight years ago. Under no circumstances do they want the foreign minister position, because while it tends to make the occupant of the office popular, it does nothing for the party. In 2009, the FDP took over five ministries because they came along with several well-paid jobs for party members, but political achievements did not result. This time, they have their sights set on only three ministries, but are prioritizing those that conform to the core issues they campaigned on: education and digital issues, for example, and the Finance Ministry, of course. Lindner believes the latter is the only ministry that is "at eye level with the Chancellery."

Most of all, though, the FDP would like to change the organizational structures in a coalition government in order to limit Merkel's power. The party would like to see the most important decisions not made in cabinet meetings, but in regular gatherings of coalition party and parliamentary group leaders. In a coalition government, says an FDP negotiator, "the responsibility for determining policy does not lie with the chancellor but with the parties involved."

It is very possible that the FDP will find agreement for this proposal from at least three of the four parties involved.

Many in Germany are currently looking to the small northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, where a Jamaica coalition was installed following state elections earlier this year. Governor Daniel Günther, of the CDU, says that during the campaign, he had initially been hoping for a pairing with just the FDP, but now the 44-year-old emphasizes: "I have an extreme amount of appreciation for this coalition."

A Blueprint

While the government hasn't even been in office for 100 days yet, Günther already believes that it has a future, potentially even beyond the five-year legislative period that just started. The coalition has focused on future-oriented projects such as digitalization, including "Smart Farming," and making Schleswig-Holstein "the most family friendly" state in Germany, with a focus on day care and education. The coalition agreement likewise includes support for gay marriage, even though Günther had once opposed it, and the government even plans to explore the legalization of marijuana. On refugee policy, the state is also seeking a more liberal policy when it comes to issues such as refugee family reunification, for example.

"It shows that Jamaica can lead to progress in our society," says Eka von Kalben, Green Party floor leader in state parliament. "To solve future problems, it is no longer enough for each party to cower in its corner."

Can the Schleswig-Holstein coalition become a blueprint for the national government? The chancellor believes it can. Merkel has already indicated to her would-be coalition partners how she hopes to avoid potential conflicts from arising in the first place. She intends for each to have its own area of authority where it can largely determine policy. For the FDP, that could be the digital economy while for the Greens, it could be climate, energy or transportation. The advantages to Merkel of this approach are obvious: Her coalition partners would be able to engage on and shape issues that are important to their own constituents. And they would be responsible should things go wrong.

At the same time, deputy FDP head Wolfgang Kubicki, who leads the party's parliamentary group in Schleswig-Holstein, would like to see the coalition partners agree on joint principles for the most important policy areas. "Jamaica has to become a joint project under a single heading," he says. "The modernization of Germany could be such a heading."

A first step should involve representatives of the Greens and FDP meeting separately to agree on a joint position on energy and economic issues, for example -- the fields where the contrasts between the two parties seem largest.

When it comes to energy issues, FDP member Stefan Kapferer believes that compromise is, in fact, possible. Kapferer was once a state secretary in the Economics Ministry and is now director of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries and he notes that all of the parties that might become part of a Jamaica coalition "clearly threw their support behind the Paris climate goals." That means, he says, that the incoming coalition must reduce CO2 emissions and close down coal-fired power plants at a more rapid rate than has thus far been the case. The only questions then left to answer pertain to the precise timeline for the complete elimination of coal and the degree to which plant operators should be compensated.

'Start Talking'

There will, though, be significant differences on social issues. The CSU, for example, is likely to encounter vehement opposition to its multi-billion-euro plan for expanding pensions for stay-at-home mothers. The Greens, meanwhile, are fighting for a major overhaul to Germany's health insurance system which would do away with private insurance policies altogether -- a political no-go for the conservatives and the FDP.

As such, not even the outlines have emerged of what a Jamaica coalition might look like. If the parties involved are unable to find common positions, the alliance could collapse even before it is formed. If they are, however, it could pave the way for progress on such issues as climate and digital issues.

As such, many of those in favor of the Jamaica alliance believe it is imperative to begin talks as soon as possible. Earlier this week, though, party leaders for the conservatives, the Greens and the FDP agreed to wait to begin talks until after October 15 state elections in Lower Saxony.

Deputy FDP leader Kubicki believes that is a mistake. "I think it is wrong to wait until after Lower Saxony to begin negotiations," he says. "It would make sense for at least the Greens and FDP to start talking."

By Annette Bruhns, Jan Friedmann, Ann-Katrin Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christian Reiermann, Michael Sauga, Cornelia Schmergal, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter

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