Germans tend to prefer consensus to political dispute. In this they may lack ambition, but it has paid off in the past. The German voting system, federalism, employee participation in workplace management: Almost all sectors of society in Germany are geared towards consensus -- and it mostly functions well.
Other countries, such as France, look on with a mixture of skepticism and admiration at the Germans' round-table culture. While the French have suffered in the euro crisis because their political battle lines are so clearly defined -- making reforms practically impossible -- a grand coalition of Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) would be typically German -- boring, but solid. No wonder that the majority of Germans have said they want such an alliance before almost every election , for many years.
Of course, even in Germany, the grand coalition should remain the exception rather than the rule. Democracy thrives on disputes and clear alternatives, and the Bundestag, the country's parliament, needs a strong opposition to keep the government in check. None of that would be the case in a grand coalition, which would likely paralyze debate and largely prevent the opposition from even expressing its point of view.
But from the chancellor's perspective, it has its advantages. Further difficult decisions will need to be taken in the euro crisis, which could come back with a vengeance in the coming year. And with that in mind, a broad alliance with the Social Democrats would bring added stability for all of Europe. Since the preservation of Europe is the most important project for any future government, it is also the most important argument in favor of a grand coalition.
No One Wants to Govern with Merkel
But there is no fast track to forming such a government. The seemingly paradoxical truth is that at the moment, no one wants to govern with Merkel -- neither the SPD nor the Green Party. Merkel now has a reputation as a coalition-partner killer. Everyone is afraid of her -- no one wants to end up like the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), the junior partner in the previous coalition. The FDP had formed the government with the CDU and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU) , and then collapsed on Sunday with its worst-ever showing, missing the 5 percent threshold for getting into parliament. The rule is clear: Whoever co-rules, loses out.
The Greens know this: A CDU-Green coalition would have its certain appeal, albeit with a completely uncertain outcome. The CDU/CSU and the Greens would be a difficult fit. As the just-finished election campaign showed, the rifts between the two camps are too deep.
Green parliamentary group co-chair Jürgen Trittin's tax increase program is as unattractive to the CDU as CSU leader Horst Seehofer's proposals for a childcare subsidy are to the Greens. In the wrangling over an agreement with Merkel , the Greens would have to completely rip up their core policies, and would afterwards probably see their support drop to even less than the unspectacular 8 percent they managed on Sunday.
The Greens will therefore have to dig their heels in and hope the SPD does them a favor by entering into a grand coalition soon. Then they avoid being in the position of having to choose.
The SPD, meanwhile, has at least as little enthusiasm for an alliance with the CDU as the Greens, making it likely that they will play hard to get. It may sound absurd, but the Social Democrats in turn hope the Greens are daring enough to join up with Merkel. This would allow the SPD to get out of a sticky situation and, as the lively opposition, happily hoover up scared-off Green voters.
Lengthy Negotiations Ahead
This means Germany faces excruciatingly long coalition negotiations. The CDU/CSU will inevitably ratchet up the pressure on the SPD soon. Merkel will remind the Social Democrats of their political responsibility to the state. In addition to Europe, there are important issues that could finally be tackled by a grand coalition: the energy transition away from nuclear power, for example, or the minimum wage. A grand coalition could also make some headway on financial market regulation. In the four years of the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition, movement in many of these areas has been little to non-existent.
Of course, the SPD is also balking at the idea of a grand coalition because of the bitter memories from the last such alliance from 2005 and 2009, when they came across as Merkel's faithful workers. That work that brought them nothing even as it helped bring about the chancellor's 2009 success at the polls. History will not be repeating itself in that sense. In any new grand coalition, the SPD would play a different role than last time around, and be fractious and argumentative. It would be arduous for Angela Merkel to govern with this SPD.
Is there a way to resolve this stalemate? Not really. One party or the other will have to take the plunge. Of course, the SPD and the Greens could both remain stubborn, but then they will both lose.
A minority government in Germany is not conceivable, not durable, not in the midst of the euro crisis. It would mean new elections, sooner or later. And then the consensus-loving German electorate would lose patience. The SPD and the Greens would be punished by voters and only one person would win: Angela Merkel. Though, in that scenario, perhaps even the FDP would make a comeback.