Merkel returns for a fourth term

Relief that a coalition deal has been struck in Berlin will be tempered by low expectations for the incoming government

With the decision by members of the Social Democratic Party to approve going into coalition with her Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel is assured of a fourth term as German chancellor. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

With the decision by members of the Social Democratic Party to approve going into coalition with her Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel is assured of a fourth term as German chancellor. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

 

Never in the postwar era has Germany had a longer hiatus between an election and the emergence of a government. It took more than five months and included several false starts along the way, but the decision by Social Democratic Party (SPD) members to approve a coalition deal with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) means a wildly tumultuous election has produced virtually the same government led by the same chancellor.

On balance, it was worth the wait. The deal brings an end to the uncertainty that hung over the continent’s chief political power-centre since last September and, in giving Merkel a fourth term, ensures a degree of continuity and stability at the European Council. With disputes over Brexit, migration and tax policy on the horizon, Merkel’s steady hand will be badly needed.

Although the SPD and the Christian Democrats both took a thrashing at the polls, it was the centre-left party that had the greater leverage going into the talks, particularly as it offered Merkel her only alternative to fresh elections and had previously resigned itself to a spell in opposition. That’s why this was less a simple renewal of vows than a fundamental renegotiation of the terms of the marriage. The SPD pressed its advantage to extract an expansionist programme for government as well as the key finance, foreign and labour ministries. As a result Germans will benefit from wider child care, tax cuts for lower-income earners and more spending on infrastructure.

However, for the two coalition partners – and, more widely, for Germany’s European partners – relief that the deal has been done will be tempered by low expectations for the incoming coalition. The SPD is taking a risk by ceding the leadership of the opposition to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The jaded party grassroots are at best ambivalent about the coalition, and their mood won’t have been helped on Sunday by news that Italy’s centre-left bloc has seen its vote fall to half its 2014 level – further evidence of the worrying collapse of traditional social democracy.

For its part, a diminished Christian Democratic bloc returns to office similarly spooked by the rising threat on its right flank. Merkel managed to defuse internal unrest in recent weeks by promoting rivals and potential successors, but the clock is now ticking on her leadership. As her departure nears, her authority will inevitably begin to wane. These are not ingredients that produce dynamic government, still less one that is ready to lead Europe into a new integrationist push.

If there is one lesson the past five months underline, however, it’s the importance of not underestimating Angela Merkel. At the very least, the new deal means she has secured something that eludes nearly all political leaders. When she eventually decides to go, it will be at a time – and on terms – of her own choosing.

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