A Failed Love Affair Given the Choice, Merkel Would Keep Left-Right Coalition
In the past, the partner of choice for Germany's conservative Christian Democrats has been the business-friendly Free Democrats. The FDP has fared well this year and could get enough votes to join the next government. But many say Angela Merkel would rather stick with the Social Democrats.
Last Tuesday evening, a ghost hovered for a short time in the peaceful, reddish glow of early evening over the southwestern German city of Freiburg. The magician who put it there was none other than the Social Democratic Party's candidate for the chancellorship, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He was standing on a lake stage on the edge of the city's beer garden, talking about how awful things would be in a Germany ruled by a coalition government comprising the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
"Many people ask me: Would a black-yellow coalition (the colors of the CDU and FDP) really be as bad as the Social Democrats say?" Steinmeier's response, not surprisingly, was: yes, of course. A CDU-FDP coalition government would reduce social benefits, undermine protections against employee termination, and make the government poor so that the rich could pay less in taxes, Steinmeier said. With each sentence, the ghost he had conjured up became more threatening.
"That's why I'm asking you to tell that to anyone who believes that things won't be half bad with a black-yellow coalition," he said.
Steinmeier and his fellow Social Democrats have been conjuring up the black-and-yellow ghost all across Germany lately -- in every speech and every interview. It is the same ghost former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder conjured up successfully in the last campaign four years ago. It seemed strong and threatening to many at the time. And now? Hasn't black-and-yellow become a bit of a limp ghost? And is it even capable of scaring people anymore?
So far, the CDU, the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, and the FDP haven't exactly come across as a closed formation with a clear goal in mind. This leaves German voters wondering which is more curious: that these so-called ideal partners lack a game plan or the fact that they are at loggerheads.
The pro-business liberals (FDP) and the conservatives (CDU and CSU) have been bickering for weeks now. CSU leader Horst Seehofer derisively referred to FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle as "that sensitive soul," while FDP Vice-Chairman Rainer Brüderle accuses the conservatives of engaging in "parasitic behavior." Indeed, the two sides have been so spiteful toward each other in recent weeks that they could easily be mistaken for archenemies, not partners of choice.
Unlike the summer of 2005, when Merkel and Westerwelle were ardently campaigning for a black-yellow reform project, there is a sense of trepidation, even disinclination, to their efforts. They hope to come into power quietly, furtively and without a shared vision -- in other words, without fighting.
What, then, is the black-yellow platform for the 2009 election set to take place on Sunday, Sept. 27?
Four years ago, the liberals and conservatives shared a vision. They introduced themselves to voters as a decisive team of reformers, as an alliance for which Schröder's Agenda 2010 structural reforms hadn't gone far enough, one that called for deeper cuts and greater sacrifices. In their campaign, they used code words promoting a society driven mainly by competition. The zeitgeist on which they were surfing was neoliberalism.
Today black-yellow seems like an anachronism, outdated and out of place. The years when journalists, academics and politicians vied to produce the more radical reform proposals are over. The financial crisis has not just consumed billions, it has also destroyed faith in the power of the market. There would be something odd about the FDP, the favorite party of bankers, becoming part of the next government this fall. Besides, the FDP stubbornly refuses to recognize the challenges of international climate change. If the liberals had their way, Germany's climate protection program would be systematically slashed.
The massive amount of distrust between the CDU/CSU and the FDP makes it virtually impossible for the would-be coalition partners to generate a feeling of commonality during this summer's election season. Although each of the two sides describes the other as its partner of choice, both refuse to grant exclusivity to the other. "I cannot and do not wish to trust Mr. Westerwelle," CSU Chairman Seehofer admitted a few weeks ago. CDU/CSU officials are convinced that Westerwelle could join forces with SPD candidate Steinmeier and the Green Party to form a so-called traffic-light coalition (the color attributed to the SPD is red, making it a red-yellow-green alliance).
Westerwelle, for his part, wants the CDU/CSU to renounce the grand coalition -- Merkel's power-sharing government together with the left-leaning SPD since 2005 -- and more importantly, any possible pact with the Green Party. But Merkel doesn't want to do that. Keeping too many back doors open makes it difficult to build trust or euphoria.
The difficult relationship between the liberals and the conservatives is also reflected in the relationship between their leaders. Merkel and Westerwelle are far less emotional about each other today than they were when they first joined forces in a bid for power. Their relationship has the flavor of a failed love affair, with Westerwelle playing the role of the jilted party.
In private, the FDP chief tends to refer to the Chancellor as "Mutti," saying things like: "Mommy just gave another great speech." Of course, he means it in a disparaging way. Westerwelle is disappointed by Merkel's performance as chancellor, so much so that he feels personally insulted.
The two politicians had a better relationship before Merkel formed her grand coalition government. They liked each other, and they had a lot in common. Both were liberal, and both had to hold their own against their parties' cantankerous good old boys' clubs.
The 2005 parliamentary election put an end to their plans for a common future. Westerwelle had believed that he and Merkel shared more than political ideals. He thought the two had developed a friendship.
Merkel thought differently. For Merkel, there is no such thing as friendship in politics. She had become the chancellor of a grand coalition government, while Westerwelle became the opposition leader. At the time, Merkel prevented the FDP leader from responding directly to her government statements in the German parliament, the Bundestag. She made a point of conversing with fellow party members or -- even worse -- with SPD Chairman Franz Müntefering or Steinmeier, while Westerwelle attacked her policies in the plenary assembly. The papers were reporting how often she sent text messages to Müntefering, while Westerwelle was being left virtually high and dry.
A First Alliance Between the CDU and Greens
When Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust, a member of Merkel's CDU, expressed a preference for the Green Party leading up to the February 2008 state parliamentary election, Westerwelle was furious while Merkel said nothing. The FDP failed to secure seats in the state parliament, while the CDU entered into its first-ever alliance with the Greens at the state level.
As payback, Westerwelle went hiking in the Sauerland region with the chancellor's archenemy, former CDU Chairman Friedrich Merz, who threw in the towel after his legendary quarrels with Merkel.
Merkel and Westerwelle have changed considerably since 2005. Ultimately, both have veered closer to the left and become more social democratic, even if they themselves would deny it.
Westerwelle has tried to boost his credibility in the last eight years, and to some extent, he has succeeded. In the past, as he admits today, he could "compensate for a touch of insecurity by making audacious statements." Those statements included, in particular, declarations of war against workers, trade unions ("a plague for our country") and "social romantics" in the CDU/CSU. He liked to portray himself as an advocate of the self-employed and early risers.
Little of that has remained, as even Westerwelle has toned down his rhetoric. Until recently, he was relatively unconcerned about divisions in German society. Nowadays he says privately that, in the past, he "never really noticed injustice."
- Part 1: Given the Choice, Merkel Would Keep Left-Right Coalition
- Part 2: 'If She Had Her Way, She Would Continue to Govern with the SPD'