Germany’s Merkel looks for ‘grand coalition’

Winning more than 40 percent of the vote, Angela Merkel’s party courts the centre-left to form a government.

Berlin, Germany – One day after Germans voted in parliamentary elections, preliminary final results show that Angela Merkel will remain chancellor, with her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) likely forming a “grand coalition” with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).

The biggest drama of any election – who will become the country’s next leader? – was largely a foregone conclusion, with Merkel’s CDU dominating in the polls.

Preliminary final results of Sunday’s contest showed the CDU with more than 40 percent of the vote – the most it has won since the early 1990s – leaving it just a few seats short of an absolute majority in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament.

The true excitement lay on the margins, as two parties tried – and failed, according to the preliminary results – to earn the five percent of the vote needed to win seats in parliament.

The CDU’s victory was tempered by their coalition partner’s big loss. The pro-business, laissez-faire Free Democratic Party (FDP) fell short of the five-percent hurdle, for the first time since 1949.

At an FDP election-watching party at a central Berlin wine bar, well-dressed supporters – many wearing suits and yellow ties, the party’s colour – moaned and muttered expletives when the first exit polls results were released showing them below five percent.

Sipping on a Luebzer beer outside, a young man who had worked as an assistant for the FDP in the Bundestag, told Al Jazeera “it could be better” when asked about the election results, surmising that the CDU and SPD would probably form a grand coalition.

Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz, said the FDP’s loss was partly a result of it coming “across as self-serving, serving special interests”. Shortly after the last parliamentary elections in 2009, for instance, the party drew criticism after it emerged that they had proposed lowering sales taxes on hotels after having accepted a 1.1m euro ($1.49m) donation from a major hotelier.

And though the CDU has in the past encouraged their supporters to strategically vote for the FDP, so that their preferred coalition partner can break the five-percent threshold, the CDU did not do so in this election.

Alternative for Germany, an anti-euro party formed earlier this year, won about the same share of the vote as the FDP, and will also not make it into parliament. Yet the party was happy nevertheless, saying the strong performance of such a young party shows palpable disenchantment with the German government’s European politics.

“The parties have learned that they cannot do whatever they want. Now they know that there will be opposition from the middle of the society,” said party chairman Bernd Lucke, an economist, according to Euronews. “It is a good day for Germany.”

Coalition building

Germany’s three left-of-centre parties will likely hold enough seats in the next Bundestag to form a bare majority. But forming a ruling coalition with such a narrow margin would likely be unstable – and many in the SPD do not want to work with the Left party, which is seen as an unsavory coalition partner because of its ties to the former East Germany’s Communist Party.

So it will be up to Merkel’s CDU to find a coalition partner. The chancellor has announced that she has already spoken with the SPD, yet is not ruling out other coalition partners – presumably referring to the Greens, the only other party besides the Left to make it into the Bundestag.

A grand coalition with the SPD, which ruled Germany from 2005-09, seems more probable. “It seems like both parties know that they have to form a grand coalition,” Dr Marcel Lewandowky, a political scientist at the Helmut Schmidt University of Hamburg, told Al Jazeera. “It even seems like the SPD had made peace with that.”

Forming a grand coalition will probably not have much effect on Germany’s policies towards Europe, as the SPD and CDU largely agree on many issues.

But social policy within Germany could tack to the left. “[The SPD] will certainly want a lot of spoils,” Kai Arzheimer told Al Jazeera, in part because many in the party are apprehensive that their voters will punish them for joining a coalition with their traditional rivals.

Aside from cabinet portfolios, Arzheimer says he thinks the SPD would likely insist on a national minimum wage – which Germany currently does not have. The SPD is less likely to make headway with its support for a liberalised policy on dual citizenship for immigrants in Germany, he believes, in part because the CDU fears such a policy could lose it votes.

Although a grand coalition would give the SPD a shot at being in government again, after being in the opposition for four years, last night’s results were disappointing for the party nevertheless, says Arzheimer. “They were hoping that they would bounce back from the 2009 result, which was the worst result ever [for the party]. And they have bounced back – but only by two-and-a-half points.”

Meanwhile, the pro-internet freedoms Pirate Party performed poorly in Sunday’s elections, taking home just over two percent of the vote – way below the more than 10 percent it had been polling early last year.

Among Germany’s minor parties, the only others to win one percent or more of the nationwide vote were the far-right National Democratic Party with 1.3 percent, and the Free Voters with 1.0.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Source: Al Jazeera