More than two months after its general election, Germany still has no new government. The old one is in place—including, as a ghostly touch, ministers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previous junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, who are half committed to civil liberties and entirely so to the freedom of capital. They failed to meet the requirement of 5 percent of the national vote total, and will thus not be in the new Parliament—already sitting—or the new government. There may be one within a week, if the members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) agree to a coalition program their leaders negotiated with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (along with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, CSU). Results are expected on December 14.
Neither the Christian Democrats nor the Social Democrats are enthused about the agreement, and the official voices of German business are especially critical. They object to the introduction of a minimum wage; to flexibility in the pension system, including an earlier retirement age for some; as well as to increased social expenditure on matters like education, health and family benefits.
Business leaders are relieved that Merkel did not yield on her refusal to accept Eurobonds, so that the Social Democrats, despite their support for a European social model, will be agreeing to impose austerity on some of the other European nations. The German public has been convinced that Germany has no responsibility to pay for the supposedly spendthrift, less wealthy European nations. The SPD leaders somewhat lamely argue that their first priority is improvements for economically marginalized German citizens—as many as 25 percent of the population. They say the coalition agreement strengthens the German welfare state and provides more purchasing power to stimulate the economy. Still, they have implicitly endorsed the myth of a solitary, prosperous Germany, even as the country’s European neighbors stagnate. That view reflects both an economic fallacy and denial of a common European citizenship. Bulging with profits, many German firms practice economic nationalism in their own way, by investing in low-wage economies in the new eastern states of the European Union. Their vociferous objections to the coalition agreement reflect a frustrated project: the dismantling of the German welfare state and a reduction of the regulatory and guiding role of government in the economy. Their protests, and those of business-oriented CDU politicians, are welcome to the Social Democratic leaders. It is just what they want their members to hear.
Submitting a coalition agreement for ratification by all the members of a party is new in Germany, and the Social Democrats have been criticized by Germany’s conservative and shallow media for taking democracy too literally. The process is certainly in striking contrast with the fraudulent Internet consultations of the Obama White House through the incessant e-mails of Organizing for America. The party vote is insufficient to end Germany’s creeping depoliticization—a shared EU affliction—but it has, if only for a few weeks, enlivened German public life. That is because there may be a substantial tally against the agreement. Party leaders have thus abandoned Berlin to meet locally with the members; if they had displayed as much energy in the actual election, they might have bettered their mediocre performance.
Merkel needs a coalition partner, since she lacks five seats for a majority, having won 41 percent of the vote. The Social Democrats, with 26 percent, and Greens, with 8 percent, are far from being able to form a coalition. If they agreed to include the Left Party, with slightly more than 8 percent of the vote, they could do so. Many of their voters would accept, and some would be enthusiastic, about the only possible alternative to Merkel and the CDU-CSU continuing in power.