Leroy N. Soetoro
2017-11-21 22:43:10 UTC
BERLIN Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany faced the greatest crisis of
her career on Monday after negotiations to form a new government
collapsed, shaking a country that is Europes political and economic
The breakdown abruptly raised the prospect of new elections in Germany. It
came less than three months after the last elections seemed to assure that
Ms. Merkel, an icon of Western democracy and values, would remain
Germanys leader for a fourth term.
The chancellor said she remained hopeful about forming a majority
government. But if forced to choose, Ms. Merkel said, she would prefer to
go through new elections rather than try to lead a minority government.
I dont want to say never, but I am very skeptical, and believe that new
elections would be the better way forward, the chancellor told the public
At a time when the European Union is facing a host of pressing problems,
from Brexit negotiations with Britain, to the rise of right-wing populism,
to separatism in Spains Catalonia region, the possibility of political
instability in a normally reliable Germany sent tremors through the
The collapse of talks reflected the deep reluctance of Ms. Merkels
conservative bloc and prospective coalition partners the ecologist-
minded Greens and pro-business Free Democrats to compromise over key
positions. The Free Democrats quit the talks late Sunday, citing what they
called an atmosphere of insincerity and mistrust.
There is no coalition of the willing to form a government, said Thomas
Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall
Fund. This is uncharted territory since 1949. Were facing a protracted
period of political immobility. Not only is this not going to go away
soon, there is no clear path out.
Calling new elections is not a straightforward procedure in Germany.
Written with the unstable governments of the 1920s and 1930s and collapse
of the Weimar Republic in mind, the German constitution includes several
procedural hurdles that would insure a prolonged and difficult process.
Some were quick to link Germanys disorder to a broader crisis of
democracy in the West. The unthinkable has happened, said Christiane
Hoffmann, deputy head of the Berlin bureau of Der Spiegel, a German
magazine. In that sense, she said, This is Germanys Brexit moment, its
Others said Germanys troubles were in many ways just a sign that the
country was becoming more normal, not less. Having had only four
chancellors since 1982, the country has known only a string of centrist
governments that governed by consensus.
The crisis erupted seven weeks after the last election, which brought the
right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, into Parliament, and in some
ways represented the return of politics to a country long deprived of
debate and policy disagreements.
Its just another step in the long learning of democracy of Germany since
World War II, going from a very stable proportional system to something
more messy, said Henrik Enderlein, dean of the Hertie School of
Governance in Berlin.
The bigger question, he said, was whether Ms. Merkels pragmatic governing
style had reached its limit in an era where people crave the clash of a
wider spectrum of policies. Her über-pragmatism is reaching its end, he
said. Its hard to see a scenario where she returns to her previous
position of power.
Ms. Merkel met in private on Monday with President Frank-Walter
Steinmeier, who as head of state is charged with trying to break the
deadlock in coalition talks. He could appoint a chancellor to lead a
minority government or, failing that, set in motion the process for new
The potential for instability in Germany would be a major blow to the
European Union. Ms. Merkel has been the regions dominant political figure
of the past decade, credited with guiding the bloc through the aftermath
of the 2008 financial crisis and, more recently, providing a powerful
counterpoint to populists across the Continent and beyond.
Financial markets reacted calmly to the turmoil in Berlin, calculating
that the German economy could power through the uncertainty. After opening
lower, the DAX index of major stocks closed the day higher. The euro fell
But some economists warned that the longer term effects could be more
severe. A weak government might be unable to agree on needed improvements
to infrastructure and the education system, for example.
The economic situation is very good, Christoph M. Schmidt, chairman of
the German Council of Economic Experts, said in a statement. But over the
mid and long term there are big challenges, especially the demographic
shift, digitalization, sensible development of the European Union, and
The political instability stems from the elections in Germany on Sept. 24,
when Ms. Merkels Christian Democrats finished first. But their share of
the overall vote dropped significantly, while the far-right Alternative
for Germany scored a record vote, entering Parliament for the first time
as the third-biggest grouping.
Even so, political analysts had expected Ms. Merkel to form a new
coalition government that would have allowed her to remain as chancellor.
That may still happen, but it will be harder now, and it is unlikely to
happen soon, experts say.
Elsewhere in Europe, the possibility of a weakened Ms. Merkel and of an
inward-looking Germany alarmed some leaders. The chancellor canceled a
meeting in Berlin with Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands. In
Paris, President Emmanuel Macron of France said that Ms. Merkels
difficulties were a serious hurdle to the partnership between their two
France has no interest in a worsening of the situation in Germany, Mr.
Macron said in a statement on Monday. Our wish is that our main partner,
for the sake of Germany and Europe, remains strong and stable, so that we
can move forward together, he added.
Even if Ms. Merkels problems leave Mr. Macron as Europes de facto
strongest leader with weak domestic opposition in France, a
strengthening economy, and a good record so far on driving through
economic overhauls the French president had been counting on Ms. Merkel
as an ally in his push to make changes to the European Union.
Mr. Macron will be aware that his agenda for the bloc, which includes a
common defense force, a strengthened euro, and a joint finance minister,
stands no chance without German backing.
Ms. Merkel had originally set Friday as the deadline for reaching an
agreement with the Free Democrats, the Greens, and the Christian Social
Union, which forms a conservative bloc with the chancellors Christian
Democrats. From the outset, all of those parties had differed markedly on
key issues, notably migration and climate policies, resulting in strained
talks that led to open sniping.
After they agreed to take talks into overtime, negotiators and party
leaders failed to produce any breakthroughs over the weekend, and the Free
Democrats quit the talks.
Ms. Merkel could try to approach the Social Democrats about forming
another grand coalition. But the center-left party has served as the
junior coalition partner to the Christian Democrats since 2013 and on
Monday, the partys leader, Martin Schulz, said his group had no interest
in another round.
As for new elections, the president can set the process in motion by
proposing Ms. Merkel as chancellor, which would be put to a vote in
If Ms. Merkel were to win a majority in the first round of voting, the
president could then name her as chancellor. If not, lawmakers would vote
again, within 14 days.
If Ms. Merkel failed to win a majority in a second vote, then lawmakers
would vote a third time and the candidate with the most votes would win.
At that point, the president could name that person chancellor or simply
dissolve the Parliament and order new elections, which would take place
within 60 days.
But there is no guarantee that elections would improve the situation:
Recent opinion polls predict that a new vote would bring little change,
compared to the result in September. A Forsa poll released last week
showed Ms. Merkels conservatives at 32 percent, the Social Democrats on
20 percent, the Free Democrats at 12 percent, the Greens 10 percent and
the AfD 12 percent.
Some worry that the AfD could benefit from the current chaos and increase
its share of the vote. But even if it did, that share remains far below
that of populist movements in other countries.
Germany is not leaving the EU and it did not elect Donald Trump, said
Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff. It was unable to form a government on its first
attempt. Thats bad. It causes instability. But its not the end of the
Correction: November 20, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the right-wing
party that won seats in the September parliamentary elections. It is
Alternative for Germany, not Alliance for Democracy.
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