Derek Scally: Three billboards outside Merkel’s apartment

After months of post-election wrangling, big questions remain about Germany’s future

Unless something happens soon in Berlin, I'm going to follow Martin McDonagh's lead and rent three billboards around the corner from Angela Merkel's apartment. For a mere €470 each for 10 days, according to the booking agent, I can let off some steam about Germany's unprecedented political limbo.

“Election five months ago.” “And still no government?” “How come Chancellor Merkel?”

While 500 million Europeans look on in bewilderment, including 82 million Germans, Berlin politicians continue their go-slow, largely oblivious of the attention.

We’ve had talks about talks, failed talks, more talks, two party conferences, roadshows, a draft coalition agreement, a final coalition agreement – and, 146 days on, still no coalition itself.


Europe’s most powerful country is still up on the blocks. Its once-mighty chancellor, a shadow of herself, is hoping to avoid crucifixion and go straight to a pre-Easter political resurrection. But shadows linger even on this unusually sunny February day in central Berlin.

Across the river Spree from Angela Merkel's chancellery, Berliner Hubert Ortkemper is sitting on a park bench reading Die Zeit newspaper. Its cover story: "Republic on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

After months of waiting, Hubert thinks Merkel will secure a fourth term soon – but predicts will be a Pyhrric victory. Why?

Because no power in the world can plaster over the cracks in the German political landscape.

The current joke in Berlin: what's the difference between yogurt and SPD leaders? Yogurt lasts longer

“After last September’s result, and all that’s happened since, I don’t see how they can form a sensible government lasting a full term,” said Ortkemper.

On September 24th last, Merkel and her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) polled their worst result since 1949. But they finished first and pushed to secure a fourth term by reviving their grand coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Election disaster

Many in the SPD, reeling from its own election disaster, fear another four years in bed with Angela Merkel will finish them off for good.

Mindful of this ambivalence, the SPD has given its 460,000 members the final word in a postal vote.

While we wait for the result on March 4th, the party is in meltdown. Martin Schulz, parachuted in last March as the SPD's political saviour, was this week banished into the political wilderness. His would-be successor Andrea Nahles, the party's first woman leader, is looking wobbly before she takes over the reins. The current joke in Berlin: what's the difference between yogurt and SPD leaders? Yogurt lasts longer.

Behind the jokes and the drama, though, lurks an end-stage existential crisis that has gripped the party since it enacted liberal reforms in 2003. Some 15 years later, the SPD is still undecided whether they were a stroke of genius that revived the economy, or neo-liberal political betrayal of its roots and supporters that must be corrected.

The SPD is stuck at a crossroads, one sign pointing to Macron and the other to Corbyn, and time is running out for a decision. Some 11 million voters have abandoned the SPD in the last two decades and a poll this week indicates the 153-year-old centre-left party is now just two points ahead of the five-year-old far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

No Grosse Koalition

On Tuesday evening, a young SPD crowd is holding a meeting in a Turkish community centre with the ominous address Waterloo Quay. After almost three hours of debate, the air and the arguments are spent.

But Kevin Kühnert, the 28-year-old head of the SPD youth wing with a moonlike face, is still talking about his revolt against another grand coalition, or Grosse Koalition.

His #nogroko campaign accuses SPD leaders – who changed their mind and now back a grand coalition – of putting personal ambition before party interests. In Kühnert’s telling, the party is racing at speed towards a brick wall. Voters see no major difference to Merkel’s centre-right CDU and the only way to avoid disaster, he argues, is for the SPD – in opposition – to offer real leftist politics for real people and stop shadow-boxing with the centrist third way of the Blair-Schröder era.

While the younger crowd are transfixed, older SPD members depart the airless hall early

“The political centre is where you build a majority, with good arguments and policies that help the majority of people,” he tells the crowd.

While the younger crowd are transfixed, older SPD members depart the airless hall early, even less enthused by Kühnert than by the prospect of a return to power.

Many say centrist SPD leaders used their leverage wisely in coalition talks, as Merkel’s last option, to secure the prestigious finance and foreign ministries and an expansionist €46 billion investment programme. More elusive SPD policy goals – labour and healthcare reform – are easier to achieve through compromise in office than defiant opposition.

“I’m a lefty to my bones but I know the pure doctrine Kevin preaches brings nothing,” says Sandra Wittmann (52). “They’re not uniting the party but atomising it even further.”

Regardless of how its member vote ends on March 4th, the first item on the SPD’s agenda is no longer the split – the house is already desperately divided – but survival.

"I'm increasingly concerned," said Prof Ulrike Guerot, political scientist at the Danube University, Krems, "that the SPD, this pillar of Germany democracy is about to break away and go the way of the French Socialists."

While SPD leaders are quietly confident that members will back the coalition deal, a vote against is still possible. And that’s when things really get interesting.

Germany’s postwar constitution, the Basic Law, gives acting chancellor Angela Merkel no powers to dissolve parliament for fresh elections. President Frank Walter Steinmeier can take that decision or appoint a minority government that would push Germany into uncharted waters and, most likely, fresh elections.

Some constitutional experts say the Basic Law, with its far-sighted emphasis on political stability, has served Germany well in the last months. But others argue it has, paradoxically, contributed to political limbo.

“The Basic Law didn’t think of everything,” says Prof Franz Mayer, law professor at the University of Bielefeld. “Until now politicians could lean on it but we find ourselves in a situation without an obvious constitutional solution.”

Even if the SPD back a fourth Merkel term, Prof Mayer sees the lengthy interregnum as a sign that the Basic Law – celebrating its 70th birthday next year – should be revamped for a new political reality. He suggests debating a provision for a two-term limit for chancellors, 60-day coalition talks before fresh elections – even a self-dissolving parliament.

Visitor from Berlin

But such talk is far away from the political rally on Wednesday evening in Demmin, a tiny town two hours north of Berlin. Here, all eyes are on a visitor from Berlin.

Already weakened by refugee crisis blowback, after four months of back-to-back negotiations, an exhausted-looking Angela Merkel faces a wave of internal critics, who accuse her putting her personal future before a solid coalition deal.

As would-be successors begin to circle, the chancellor of 12 years insists that she remains the best option for shaping the country, and bringing sense back to the political world after months of disarray.

“This is not the time for banging our head against the wall, but for common sense,” she said, attracting polite applause. For now, her would-be successors are biding their time.

You hear the first whispers that Europe's largest economy may be overheating, in particular because of a runaway property market

After all, on paper, all looks well. German growth last year was 2.7 per cent, manufacturers have closed their full order books, consumer confidence is at a record high and unemployment at a post-unification low.

Balanced budgets and record tax revenues mean the digital debt clock on the Reinhardstrasse in central Berlin – total debt €1.972 trillion or almost €28,000 per citizen – is now running backwards. No government? No problem.

Listen around, though, and you hear the first whispers that Europe’s largest economy may be overheating, in particular because of a runaway property market, one ECB interest rate decision away from popping. As one leading economic institute warned last month: “The risks of a cyclical downturn are rising.”

The longer this political drama goes on, the more things resemble last year's German sleeper hit Berlin Syndrome, a movie about a female tourist held captive in a lonely Berlin flat by a mysterious man.

But the real-life version of Berlin Syndrome makes it difficult to tell who is holding whom hostage.

Angry voters

Does last September’s inconclusive federal election mean angry German voters are holding their politicians hostage, or has Germany’s ageing political caste secured a choke-hold on the electorate?

Is the SPD blackmailing CDU leader Angela Merkel for her fourth term, or is she exploiting their existential fear of fresh elections to cling to power?

Has Paris brought Berlin into Zugzwang, forcing it to move on reform of the euro area, or does the departure of the SPD's Martin Schulz mean Eurosceptics in Merkel's CDU will retard the post-Brexit reform process to a crawl?

One thing is for sure: after months of election debate and unedifying post-election wrangling, the German political standoff has postponed – not resolved – major questions about what comes next for Germany’s major political parties and for the country. The problems are far too vast to fit on three billboards, though a liberal lobby group has already given it a shot.

A short walk from Angela Merkel’s apartment, on the side of the Komische Opera House, a slogan over a massive picture of Merkel’s hands reads: “We were promised more.”