Angela’s Ashes? German crisis ‘bodes badly for democratic governments everywhere’


The political crisis in Berlin challenges the idea of “German exceptionalism” as an anchor of democratic stability and a bulwark against a wave of populism, reports suggest.

The hopes of many that Germany could provide the core of a resurgent western liberal order are now in great doubt, according to Dr. Stephen F. Szabo, a Senior Fellow at AICGS.

The collapse of coalition talks bodes badly for Angela Merkel, and for democratic governments everywhere, says analyst Yascha Mounk, a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. For now, there are three likely scenarios, he writes for Slate:

  • First, the coalition between Christian Democrats and center-left Social Democrats that governed before the election still retains a healthy combined majority in parliament. After winning just a miserable 20 percent share of the vote in September, the Social Democrats vowed to leave government and regroup in opposition. But now that yet another edition of the “grand coalition” between Germany’s big traditional parties is the only realistic road to a stable government, party leaders may well change their mind. In the short run, this would be the best solution to the country’s political crisis. ….
  • Second, Angela Merkel could attempt to form a minority government. This would allow her to stay in office for the time being, and to cobble together a parliamentary majority for urgent legislation, like the federal budget, on a case-by-case basis. This option would also be far from ideal. For one, Germany would no longer be a guarantor of stability: Since minority governments are prone to fall at any moment, Merkel would for all intents and purposes become a lame duck overnight. For another, any remaining hope that Merkel might partner with Emmanuel Macron to push through much-needed reforms of the European Union would be dashed.
  • Third, if the Social Democrats refuse to join a coalition with Merkel, and she is unable or unwilling to cobble together a minority government, the country may be headed for new elections at the start of 2018. Out of a set of bad options, this would be the worst: Populist parties are already chomping at the bit to exploit the past weeks of chaos and dysfunction in a new round of elections. And even if the AfD does not manage to improve its last showing, recent polls don’t give any reason to think that a different, more ideologically coherent coalition would be able to win an outright majority. More likely than not, establishment parties would thus be faced with an even more stark version of their current dilemma after the next round of elections.


“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. We’re facing a protracted period of political immobility. Not only is this not going to go away soon, there is no clear path out.”

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, the NY Times adds.

“It’s 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. Merkel’s 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. “It’s hard to see a scenario where she returns to her previous position of power.”

Germany’s fear of political instability goes deep, analyst Anna Sauerbrey writes for the New York Times:

For many, the AfD’s entrance into the Bundestag brings to mind the dark shadow of the Weimar Republic, its disastrous collapse and all that followed. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has featured a series of German historians mining the parallels between the 1920s and ’30s and today: Back then, a divided political spectrum and a splintered left, with extremism on both sides, created a run of minority governments and a perception of political chaos, all of which made Nazi authoritarianism look like an attractive alternative.

But reports of the death of German stability are greatly exaggerated, the Economist insists:

Though a serious headache for Mrs Merkel, the deadlock in Berlin is a sign of Germany’s representative democracy working as it should. The country’s society has become more plural in recent years, so the system has produced more parties (seven, up from four) with parliamentary mandates to represent that variety—a valuable adaptation mechanism that barely exists in majoritarian electoral systems in the Anglo-Saxon world, but which makes forming a government fiddlier.

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