Berlin—Germany is currently suspended in an awkward state of political limbo, unable to piece together a government since the September 24 national vote. But the severest crisis of governance since the republic’s foundation, as it’s being hailed, is perhaps not as tragic as it looks at first sight. In fact, the exceptional situation may just prove to be a healthy shot in the arm for Germany’s stale democratic culture. If they were bold, Germans would treat it like a lifeline and pounce on the option of a minority government, the stewardship of which could well have a leftist slant—and open the way to a modicum of progressive policies.
Germany was plunged into political turmoil Sunday night when the pro-business liberal party, the Free Democrats, unexpectedly bailed out of exploratory coalition talks that included Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Greens. The talks addressed the possibility of Germany’s first-ever national “Jamaica coalition,” called such because the colors of the German parties—black, yellow, green—match those of Jamaica’s flag. This odd constellation was the result of the September election’s fractured results, which put six parties into the Bundestag—including the novice far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)—and created very few workable coalition options for majority rule.
The Social Democrats’ (SPD) thrashing at the polls prompted them, quite reasonably, to eschew another term as Merkel’s lesser teammate, even though a renewed grand coalition would have been the easiest and most obvious path for the country. Capturing just 21 percent of the vote, the 150-year-old party of the working classes could not, as leftists had hoped, pilot a left-wing coalition with the Greens and the democratic-socialist Left party (Die Linke), a so-called “red-red-green” government like those in the city-state of Berlin and southern Thuringia. (The 2005 elections had birthed red-red-green majorities on the national level, but the SPD let the moment pass, demurring from coupling with The Left, its more radical counterpart and relentless detractor.)
The Free Democrats’ motive for ditching the Jamaica talks after nearly five torturous weeks cooped up in meeting rooms until the wee hours is considered somewhat unclear, although its stated reason—simply that there was no common vision among the parties—rings true enough to me. Jamaica would have been a dog’s breakfast that no one had voted for (most Green voters, for example, eyed a coalition with the two other leftist parties, not the Christian Democrats and the increasingly nationalist liberals). Moreover, it would have left the AfD as the second-strongest opposition party in the Bundestag, for which a bumbling coalition of necessity would surely have been easy pickings, with disappointed conservatives and right-wingers falling like lemmings into the AfD’s lap.
So now Germany is up in arms, the Chicken Littles shrieking that the sky is falling down on the Federal Republic, the mighty bastion of stability and economic mojo at the center of a quivering Europe. Some observers, and it seems Merkel too, want new elections. But polls currently show all of the parties roughly where they landed in September. Elections, then, wouldn’t change anything. Others believe that the SPD should stop pouting and save the nation by rejoining a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU, and thus reversing its vow to soul-search for a term in the shelter of the opposition. The SPD, however, swears it won’t budge.