Photo Gallery: A Difficult Game of Coalition Poker


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

With the Social Democrats uninterested in governing with Angela Merkel again, the chancellor is faced with the prospect of assembling a coalition involving four different political parties. The challenges are significant. By DER SPIEGEL Staff

On Wednesday, as her cabinet meeting was coming to an end, Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Wolfgang Schäuble to stay behind. Could he imagine, she asked her finance minister, leaving his cabinet position to become president of German parliament, the Bundestag? With the political situation having become more challenging  as a result of the election, she said, it was important to her to have an experienced politician leading parliament.

Schäuble would rather have maintained his position as head of the Finance Ministry. But after the conservatives slid to their worst election result since 1949 last Sunday, it was clear to him that his chances of holding onto his portfolio were minimal. Immediately after the vote, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) ruled out a continuation of the current coalition, meaning that Merkel is faced with the prospect of slapping together a governing alliance with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens. And the FDP has indicated that it will lay claim to the finance minister position. If Schäuble wanted to ensure that he remains in a position of political power, he had little choice but to say yes. Better a bird in hand than two in the bush.

The result is the surprisingly sudden end to an impressive cabinet career. For 12 years, Schäuble was a central figure in Merkel's cabinet, first as interior minister and then as head of the finance portfolio. But now, with the chancellor having to put together what promises to be her most complicated governing coalition yet, there is no more room for the eminence grise of German politics. Many in the FDP have nothing but hatred for Wolfgang Schäuble -- and now he no longer stands in the way of a possible coalition involving the party.

Almost one week after the upheaval of last weekend's parliamentary elections, political Berlin is facing a far-reaching experiment of the kind the country has never before experienced. Soon, the country may be governed by what pundits are referring to as a "Jamaica Coalition," a name that refers to the fact that the colors associated with the parties in question -- black for the conservatives, yellow for the FDP and green for the Greens -- are the same as the Jamaican flag. It is, however, important to remember that Merkel's conservatives, too, are comprised of two parties, and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has drifted apart from its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), in recent years. That means the targeted coalition is an alliance of four extremely different parties in which the law-and-order Bavarian CSU will have to feel just as comfortable as the Greens, a party born out of the 1968 social revolution, and the market liberals from the FDP.

Some pundits believe a successful alliance among the four is impossible. Others, though, think it could turn out to be an exciting alternative to the grand coalition between the center-right conservatives and center-left SPD.

Either way, the negotiations that are now beginning will be drawn-out and complicated, particularly given that each party faces a challenging situation going into the talks. The Greens have long been divided into two camps, the leftist wing ("Fundis") and the more practically minded centrists ("Realos"), and are thus essentially sending two delegations into the negotiations. The FDP is extremely wary of reprising the disaster that befell the party after forming a coalition with Merkel in 2009. And the conservatives are led by two politicians -- Angela Merkel and CSU leader Horst Seehofer -- whose grips on power have clearly loosened. Can such circumstances be overcome?

A Good Idea

It's the Tuesday after the election and Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer are sitting side-by-side in front of the conservative parliamentary group, searching for explanations for the disastrous election results. Merkel speaks of worries about pensions, high rents in Germany's biggest cities and the sluggish pace of efforts to ease housing shortages. Seehofer says: "People need a signal that we have understood the message."

It sounds like rapport, and is indeed meant as such. Prior to the parliamentary group meeting, the two had met in the Chancellery and affirmed that they intend to find their way out of the current difficulties together. Merkel asked Seehofer if he would support the nomination of Schäuble to the position of parliamentary president and the CSU leader said he thought it was a good idea.

That, though, will likely be the last easy decision for the two. Because in reality, they have contradictory viewpoints on several issues, not least on the reasons for their comparatively poor election performances. Seehofer believes the primary reason has to do with Merkel's refugee policies. The chancellor, for her part, believes that conservatives would have done better on Sunday if the CSU hadn't constantly pounded away on the refugee issue during the campaign.

The competing views make it difficult to go into the talks with the FDP and Greens with a unified approach. Seehofer himself has said that the CDU and CSU would first have to find common ground before coalition talks. The two parties weren't able to do so before the election and now it promises to be even more difficult.

Seehofer in particular finds himself in a tight spot. A handful of party officials and parliamentarians, particularly those in the orbit of Seehofer's primary inner-party adversary Markus Söder, have already demanded that Seehofer step down from his party leadership position. On Wednesday, at a meeting of the CSU group in Bavarian state parliament, Seehofer was able to delay a deeper discussion of his role in the party until a CSU convention scheduled for mid-November. That, though, will only help him if central CSU demands find their way into a possible coalition agreement. Internal adversaries like Söder won't shy away from reminding him of that fact. One of those demands is that of establishing a hard upper-limit on the number of refugees Germany accepts each year and in an interview this week with DER SPIEGEL, Söder said that the issue was critical for his party's credibility. The problem, though, is that Merkel is against such a limit as are the Greens and FDP.

Many within the CDU, though, agree with Seehofer's analysis as to what went wrong on Sunday. Even enthusiastic Merkel supporters were dumbfounded when she said on the Monday after the election that she didn't know what she could have done differently during the campaign. One member of the party's parliamentary leadership spoke of a "complete denial of reality."

Hard Cap Compromise?

Merkel and Seehofer know how difficult it will now be to find a common position on immigration. At the same time, though, both are convinced that the coalition talks have to be successful -- new elections, after all, would likely only help the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany  (AfD).

The chancellor's camp appears ready to compromise. "Seehofer will get something," says a close confidant of Merkel's. That could, for example, come in the form of an increase to pensions for mothers who choose to stay at home to raise their children. It is something that is near and dear to the CSU leader, though it could cost billions.

A compromise might even be found when it comes to the question of a hard cap on refugees. Seehofer is willing to consider a European solution, something that would require the development of a joint EU asylum policy whereby each member state would be assigned a specific number of refugees. That, though, is a significant hurdle -- nor is it clear that his own party would agree to such a plan. The Greens, too, could put up a fuss.

It's Tuesday and senior Green Party politician Renate Künast is standing in front of a meeting room in the Reichstag telling a story about pears. In 1989, the Greens negotiated a governing coalition for the city-state of Berlin with SPD-member Walter Momper. Laughing, Künast notes that the Greens of the time were still unsure "if they should be part of a government at all." It was long ago.

Momper had invited the Greens to preliminary talks to determine whether a coalition would even work. It was slow going, with the Greens harboring doubts and listing their conditions. Meanwhile, Mompert just sat there, Künast relates, stoically peeling pears. He then quartered them and distributed the fruit to all those seated at the table. "That's when we knew that he was serious," Künast says. The moral of the story? "Coalitions don't fail due to issues, rather they fail when those involved can't get along," Künast says. You have to learn to approach things from a different perspective, she adds, then even a Jamaica coalition could work.

If that is true, there are decent chances that the coming coalition negotiations will find success. Green Party lead candidate Katrin Göring-Eckardt gets along well with the chancellor and party co-head Cem Özdemir is friendly with FDP head Christian Lindner.

In the Greens' parliamentary group, though, the mood isn't quite that cut-and-dried. On the contrary. When the lawmakers gathered on Tuesday for their first post-election meeting, almost all of them believed that a Jamaica coalition should be seriously explored. But optimism regarding the ultimate success of such talks varied significantly depending on which wing of the party they belonged to. The Fundis say it is hard to imagine forming a political alliance with the FDP, much less the CSU, while the Realos tend to think that enough joint projects can be identified if everyone negotiates in good faith.

That is also the approach taken by the Green Party economics minister in the state of Hesse, Tarek Al-Wazir. "Jamaica is now the only possibility to assemble a governing majority, so we have to try it," he says. If the Greens negotiate well, he says, the alliance presents an opportunity. "We didn't go into the campaign to demand nice things from the opposition benches," he says. "We want to change things in reality."

'Just Stupid'

But Realos like Al-Wazir push for progress in the talks, the more mistrustful the Fundis become. Such as when Göring-Eckardt says: "Everyone involved know that they have to make compromises." Or when Winfried Kretschmann, the Green Party governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg, says that the party has no red lines going into the talks -- ignoring the fact that one is written into the party's campaign platform: Refugees cannot be deported into regions of conflict, like Afghanistan.

Leading Fundis can hardly believe the degree to which the party's Realos are trying to curry favor. "It's just stupid," says one. "You can't go into preliminary talks in a weaker position than that." And, the person adds, there are of course elements of their program that the Greens cannot sacrifice. After all, the results of the talks have to be approved by the Greens' left-leaning parliamentary group and the coalition agreement is to be voted on by party members.

It won't be enough, the critic continues, for the Greens only to push through a few items pertaining to the environment and global warming. There also have to be successes on issues such as social equality and the European Union. "If we are duped on our core issues, then we can just stop now," says a Green parliamentarian from the left wing of the party.

That, the left-wing parliamentarian says, could lead the Greens to the same fate experienced by the FDP. In 2009, the FDP joined a coalition with Merkel's conservatives, only to be steamrolled throughout the legislative period. In 2013, the party didn't win enough votes to surmount the 5-percent hurdle necessary for parliamentary representation.

It has been three years since FDP leader Christian Lindner experienced a rather unique form of déjà vu. Freshly in office at the time, Lindner had invited representatives of the Dutch economically liberal party D66 to FDP headquarters in Berlin. The politicians from The Hague had once experienced a collapse similar to the one the FDP had just suffered through, going from 15.5 percent in 1994 elections to just 5.1 percent eight years later.

When their Dutch political allies explained the cause of their collapse, Lindner grinned knowingly. The politicians from the Netherlands said their party had made several promises during the campaign, but ultimately the D66 leader at the time was only interested in becoming Dutch foreign minister and deputy head of government. The comparison to Guido Westerwelle, who led the FDP into that 2009 coalition with Merkel, was unavoidable.

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