Frank-Walter Steinmeier looked a little sheepish. Standing in front of his German presidential flag, the new federal President gave his Christmas address to the German people – especially those not from a Christian tradition, he emphasised – and reminded us all that, while we might be very concerned about the lack of a new government following the September election, the state was following its correct constitutional path and the right things were being done to put in place a workable government.
Trust us, we have a constitution and a rule book!
That is poor comfort for anyone hoping to see a new radical centre emerging in Germany to take on the populists and the rising right-wing menace of the AfD. The CDU has been repositioned as ‘Die Mitte’ by Angela Merkel, but the move to occupy the centre ground has been neither radical, except perhaps in the question of Syrian refugees, nor it turns out very successful.
Coalition talks are on-going precisely because the CDU/CSU alliance did so badly in the federal elections and because Frau Merkel then struggled to convince other parties to work with her again. In the wry commentary of Christian Lindner, who pulled his Liberal FDP out of coalition talks with the Chancellor, the people can vote for whomever they like but in the end “they get a coalition with Frau Merkel in charge”.
Clearly Frau Merkel’s time as Federal Chancellor is drawing to a close, the current talks with the Social Democrat SPD will probably lead to a new coalition to continue for another three and a half years but, fatally weakened by the disastrous election results, one can assume that this is her last period in office.
So can we envisage a new Christian Democrat leader emerging to ignite a radical centre and bring fresh ideas into migration policy, energy policy, the euro and transatlantic security? Frankly, no. The most likely candidate for the next chancellor is Ursula von der Leyen, though her poor performance as Defence Secretary has done her much harm.
If it is Frau von der Leyen next, Germany will have a competent, balanced, technocratic and administratively sound leader, an internationalist and polyglot – but hardly a radical thinker and unlikely to provide answers to the sirens of the far right. Other candidates are hard to identify. It may be that a new figure will emerge out of one of the Bundesländer, moving into federal politics as the stalking horse.
Most depressing, though, for a supporter of the radical centre in Germany is the state of the SPD, the Social Democrats. On election night, following an appallingly bad result for the SPD, Martin Schulz declared that his party was not interested in a continuation of the Grand Coalition. The SPD would go into opposition for four years, and “find itself again”, reaching out to its base and its active Jusos (the young Social Democrats).
Come early January, SPD federal leaders were sitting with CDU counterparts to discuss another possible GroKo (grand coalition), because the alternative might be fresh elections and a further rise for the far right.
I am keen historian of Germany, the land of my birth. I was reminded of a famous TV interview given by Herbert Wehner in 1968, the firebrand ex-Communist and chief strategist for the SPD in the 1960s, the man who despite his convictions had convinced his party to join a Grand Coalition with the CDU/CSU in 1966. By mid 1968, the SPD had terrible opinion poll ratings and was losing many local elections, attacked by its own youth wing for ‘selling out’, discredited by many traditional voters for getting into bed with the Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists.
The party was in crisis. Wehner was asked if he regretted joining the Grand Coalition: no, he replied, the country was facing a destablising recession, recessions meant a threat to democracy in Germany and it was the party’s ‘civic duty’ to prevent that by collaborating with the CDU/CSU.
All very noble and all of course hogwash. Wehner convinced his party to join the coalition because he wanted to demonstrate that the SPD could be responsible in government, not just opposition – to win more votes in the 1969 election and to convince the Liberal FDP, who had fallen out with the Christian Democrats, that a future coalition government with the SPD was conceivable.
The plan worked brilliantly. Though the CDU/CSU was still the largest group on election night in 1969, a new SPD – FDP coalition was formed and the famous era of Willy Brandt, then Helmut Schmidt, began and lasted 13 years, drawing on the best politicians of SPD and FDP. A new orientation in foreign policy and domestic matters, a radical left-centre. Herbert Wehner came, saw and conquered.
How very different are the chances of a radical centre emerging from the SPD 50 years later. The party is at war with itself, with the Jusos rejecting a new Grand Coalition, given Schulz’s announcement on election night, and tensions between Schulz and the new leader of the parliamentary party, Andrea Nahles.
Neither Schulz nor Nahles are going to be Federal Chancellor anytime soon, nor will they be able to impose their will on any new coalition with the CDU. Unlike 1968, the angry Jusos won’t support an extra parliamentary opposition (the APO, which provided the political and intellectual framework for a new far left in Germany, resulting ultimately in the terrorist RAF and the Baader-Meinhof Group), they will most likely drift left to Die Linke, the party of the Left. Meanwhile Social Democrat voters may give up on the party in even greater numbers, or worse, register a protest vote with the Far Right.
Germany is economically sound, but faces big challenges: migration and integration, social inequality, security and global leadership. More than ever, a new leader is required with radical ideas for a nation emerging as a global leader, a new centrist to oppose the populists. A new Macron? There seems little sign of that at present. Perhaps that is why Herr Steinmeier’s Christmas address rang so hollow.
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