The Return of the GroKo: Coalition Politics in Germany
On February 7, after months of tense negotiations, a breakthrough in the grueling search for a coalition government in Germany had finally been reached. Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) tentatively agreed to bring back the “Grand Coalition” (Große Koalition or “GroKo” in German) for a third term, provided an upcoming SPD referendum in favor of the revived coalition passes. Despite this step towards stability, the future of German politics is anything but clear. Political infighting lingers in both parties, and these coalition negotiations have been marked by a volatility rare in postwar Germany.
German Parties: An Overview
Germany is a parliamentary republic. The head of government, the chancellor, is not directly elected by citizens. Rather, citizens elect representatives to the lower parliamentary house, the Bundestag, who then vote on a candidate selected by the (largely ceremonial) head of state, the president. Typically, this candidate is the head of the majority party. Because Germany is a multi-party democracy, no single party since 1957 has won an absolute majority in the Bundestag, and as a result the plurality party must enter into a coalition with minority parties in order to elect the chancellor and form a government.
Merkel’s party, the CDU, has its roots in the immediate postwar era, when West Germany’s first Chancellor and CDU leader Konrad Adenauer aligned his country with Western Europe and NATO. Historically a Catholic party—though today led by a protestant from former East Germany—the CDU’s platform promotes a centrist welfare state that rejects both laissez-faire economics and socialism. While traditionally espousing socially conservative views (Merkel herself voted against same-sex marriage last year), the party has moved steadily towards the center on migration policy under Merkel’s tenure, with the massive influx of refugees driving friction between the party’s rank and file members and its leadership.
Germany’s other big-tent party, the SPD, is the country’s oldest, founded in 1875 during the tumult of the Industrial Revolution. Once a Marxist party, the SPD moderated its views following World War II and became the center-left answer to the CDU, though continuing to court a working-class base. The SPD’s first chancellor, Willy Brandt, paved the way for rapprochement with East Germany and the Soviet Bloc in the early 1970s, and the party has consistently been either a coalition leader or a junior partner. However, the SPD has lost considerable support since the early 2000s, following significant welfare cuts under SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Several smaller parties coexist with these two Volksparteien in the Bundestag. The pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the ecologically-focused Green Party have entered into governing coalitions with the CDU and SPD, respectively. However, two relatively new parties at the ideological fringes have come to attract the most attention in recent years. The successor to East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), Die Linke, has outflanked the SPD from the left, and the far-right, nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) has become Germany’s third largest party following the 2017 election.
Not your Typical GroKo
The CDU and SPD have entered into two governing coalitions under Merkel’s tenure, following her 2005 and 2013 elections (Merkel’s second term saw a coalition between the CDU and the FDP). However, the previous round of GroKo negotiations were comparatively tame, with each party able to secure major policy goals. 76 percent of SPD executives voted to enter the coalition in 2013 and were able to pass through Germany’s first national minimum wage law during that round of negotiations; the CDU likewise secured a freeway toll on foreign vehicles and prevented a rise in taxes. The AfD, founded that same year, just barely missed the 5 percent threshold necessary to enter the Bundestag, though events during Merkel’s third term—German bailouts during the Eurozone debt crisis, increasing EU-Russian tensions in the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, and a massive influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa—precipitated growing support for the far-right nationalist party.
The decision to revive this GroKo follows in the wake of a failed first round of attempted coalition building, in which Merkel and the CDU attempted to combine forces with the Free Democrats and the Greens in a “Jamaica Coalition” (so named since the parties’ colors are the same as those of the Jamaican flag). The talks collapsed in November when the FDP pulled out, reportedly due to disagreements over tax, asylum, and environmental policies. While Merkel could have theoretically pursued a minority government with the Greens, this would have created difficulty during the legislation process, as the CDU and Greens would have had to secure a majority coalition ahead of every vote.
Further, the SPD’s former leader Martin Schulz originally stated that his party would not enter into a second grand coalition, and instead planned to become the main opposition party in the Bundestag. In order to bring back the GroKo, Merkel had to cede important cabinet positions to the SPD, most notably finance minister and foreign minister. A Social Democrat finance minister could look to partner with French President Emmanuel Macron on steps towards a common Eurozone budget and finance ministry, measures that CDU-led Germany has until now largely resisted. SPD-led foreign policy could also push back against Merkel’s international initiatives. Likely future policies, based on the published list of the coalition’s terms, include increased investment in EU member states, limited resumption of refugee family reunification, and a reduction of foreign arms sales. Such a government is unlikely to change course on Brexit, however, as both the SPD and CDU hope to prevent future defection from the EU.
In the wake of the GroKo’s revival, to Merkel’s dismay, the extreme-right wing AFD is poised to take on the role of opposition party. What was once a fringe party just five years ago has nearly eclipsed the 150-year-old SPD in popularity, and to what extent a fiercely anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic AFD opposition could have an impact on Germany’s asylum and Europe policies is as of yet unclear.
Perhaps the most immediate cause of the SPD and CDU’s troubles is a perceived loss of ideological clarity. As the CDU agrees to pass social democratic measures like gender pay-gap legislation, and the SPD follows the CDU’s lead on limiting migration, both parties’ grassroots supporters see a centrist platform that offends few, but at the same time disappoints most. These fears of a watering-down of principles have been particularly pronounced in the SPD, after Martin Schulz reversed course on the GroKo and planned to become foreign minister, despite initially promising to abstain from a Merkel cabinet. Schulz has since renounced his claim to the cabinet position and has resigned as head of the SPD. Andrea Nahles, former labor minister and SPD youth leader popular with the party’s left wing, is set to take over the party in the near future, but disillusionment remains among the party’s base.
In the eyes of observers, the SPD and, above all, Merkel have paid dearly to bring back the GroKo. After four years of coalition with the CDU, the SPD is in the throes of something akin to an identity crisis. The party suffered its worst electoral performance since World War II in the 2017 election, polling at just 20.5 percent and having lost a significant portion of its traditionally working-class base to the far-left (Die Linke) and the far-right (AfD). Left-leaning factions within the party, such as the Jungsozialisten, or “young socialists,” have voiced discontent with the moderating influence of a four-year coalition with the conservatives and have spearheaded a #NoGroKo movement ahead of the SPD vote to approve the coalition’s revival on March 4.
For all the SPD’s troubles, at least it can claim to have won control of Germany’s most important ministerial positions (finance and foreign affairs). Merkel’s re-election has come as something of a pyrrhic victory, having handed over many of the policy reins to the SPD in order to hold onto the Chancellery. Two paths lie ahead of Merkel, and neither is particularly appealing. If the SPD votes to block the GroKo, then the Bundestag will be dissolved and new elections will be held, a disappointing end to the Merkel era that could further solidify the AFD’s ascendancy. However, although it is more likely that the SPD will approve the coalition than not, challenges would still remain for Merkel. A revival of the GroKo would leave Merkel nominally in power but with significant challenges from within the CDU, with an emboldened far-right and far-left agitating against her and with real policy-making power lying with the SPD. Merkel’s future looks bleak indeed.
Dave Marques is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.
Dave Marques is a fourth-year political science major interested in American and European politics. He spent his third year studying in Berlin, Germany, where he worked as a translator for a local history app and a communications intern for the European Council on Foreign Relations . In his free time he enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages.