Red letter day looms for Merkel as lengthy coalition talks loom

No one is expecting a government when MPs meet for their first sitting later this month

Green Party co-chairwoman Annalena Baerbock and co-chairman Robert Habeck. A key moment comes when the Greens meet CDU officials on Tuesday. Photograph:  Clemens Bilan/EPA

Green Party co-chairwoman Annalena Baerbock and co-chairman Robert Habeck. A key moment comes when the Greens meet CDU officials on Tuesday. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

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December 17th is a red letter day: when, potentially, Angela Merkel will break the record of her mentor Helmut Kohl and become post-war Germany’s longest-serving chancellor.

And there is every chance she will still be in office then. Though Merkel stepped down by choice, and her four-term run ended on election day, September 26th, she remains on as chancellor in a caretaker role until a new coalition is established.

Ongoing shifts in German political tectonics mean that Berlin’s post-election choreography has become even more elaborate. A week after voters spoke, politicians are struggling to agree on a dance, its duration, or even who’s calling the tune. What’s more, there’s no one to crack the whip.

Germany’s post-war constitution, the Basic Law, obliges the new Bundestag to convene for the first time a month after election day. But no one is expecting a government when MPs meet for their first sitting later this month. Nor is is there a constitutional time limit on coalition talks, as recent history has made painfully clear. 

After the September 2017 election it was March before Merkel and her government were sworn in.

No one wants a repeat of that now but no one can rule it out either as, for the first time, three political blocs are needed to form a new administration.

A final complication is rewriting the coalition rulebook on the fly: with just 1.6 percentage points between the winning Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the runner-up Christian Democratic Union (CDU), both have notions of power. Both plan coalition talks with the other two mainstream parties – the Greens and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Over the weekend, Germany’s two-stage talks process gained a third stage: a quick round of post-election speed-dating.

Speed-dating

The outcome of the speed-dating was that both smaller parties favour talks with their traditional partners. The Greens with the SPD, with whom they governed for seven years until 2005; the FDP is looking to the CDU, its ally in the Kohl-era and again during Merkel’s third term.

SPD general secretary Lars Klingbeil, chief strategist of his party’s election victory, is acting as political pacemaker: “Our wish is that we come quickly to three-way talks.”

Green Party leaders signalled their agreement with this, seeing overlap on finance and welfare issues – despite room for improvement, in their view, on SPD climate change election promises.

The party wants “full speed ahead” too on a digital transformation of Germany’s state apparatus after years of neglect in the Merkel era.

“We need a coalition that gets to work on tackling social injustice but also tackles real climate protection,” said Michael Kellner, Green general secretary.

FDP negotiators know how to make their rivals beg, holding two rounds of speed-dates on Sunday: first with the SPD and then with the CDU.

Alongside SPD officials after talks, FDP secretary general Volker Wissing said it was “clear we have cliff-edges”, citing his party’s opposition to tax increases or centre-left big state policy.

‘Cliff edges’

After meeting with the CDU on Sunday evening, Wissing spoke of “constructive talks and, from a content perspective, few cliff edges”.

FDP plans to conduct parallel talks with the CDU and SPD, then choose the best deal, bodes ill for expedited negotiations. A key moment comes on Tuesday, when the Greens meet CDU officials, who still hold out hope for fifth term in office.

As EU member states begin negotiations on key climate and finance policy questions, deadlock looms in Brussels thanks to drawn-out coalition negotiations in Berlin on these very issues. And all the while, the clock ticks down for Angela Merkel and her place in the record books. 

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