Germany’s Lame-duck Government

It’s likely that in the coming weeks and months Germany will move toward a much larger, and much more significant, political crisis.

The world this week is digesting the outcome of last Sunday’s national election in Germany. The most dramatic news, of course, was not Angela Merkel’s reelection, but the impressive emergence of the Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right, nationalist party. The AfD was the third-most popular party in Germany and won around 90 seats in parliament. Meanwhile, Germany’s mainstream parties—the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD)—all lost support.

There are more than a few angles to this story, but here are three specific trends to watch in the weeks and months ahead.

First, watch the evolution of the CSU.

The CSU is the sister party to the CDU. The CSU is based in Bavaria and tends to be more conservative than the CDU. Sunday’s election was a wake-up call for the CSU. The CSU won just under 39 percent of the vote in Bavaria. This was a 10 percent drop from the 2013 election. CSU leaders are doing a lot of soul-searching this week. According to Edmund Stoiber, a former CSU leader, the party made the mistake of aligning too closely with Chancellor Merkel. It has also been said that the CSU was outflanked on the right by the AfD.

Despite its poor showing on Sunday, this result was not fatal. In fact, it was a needed jolt and the CSU should be able to recover. The AfD isn’t a serious long-term threat. While it was democratically elected, and it did seduce CSU supporters, the AfD’s voter base isn’t strong. A lot of its supporters aren’t exactly staunch supporters. And presented with a more appealing option, many AfD voters would switch allegiance in an instant.

So the CSU’s path forward is fairly obvious: It must position itself as a viable option to the AfD. This means we can expect the CSU to move further to the right. Expect the CSU to be more hard-line in its negotiations with Angela Merkel. Expect the CSU to talk more firmly about immigration. Expect it to take take on an even more nationalist tone. Basically, expect the CSU to become a milder version of the AfD.

If the CSU can do this, then it will not only regain lost voters, but it will poach voters from the AfD and even other mainstream parties. The reality is, the CSU has been presented with a huge opportunity.

Second, watch the internal politics of the Christian Social Union.

As noted, the CSU faces a terrific opportunity. But its ability to capitalize on this opportunity will depend on its leadership. Moreover, the CSU has a party election next year in the fall. The CSU needs to get itself figured out. Some CSU members this week began demanding the resignation of Horst Seehofer, the party leader. One or two candidates appear to be positioning themselves to replace Seehofer if the opportunity arises.

The CSU needs a leader who can get voters excited—a leader who can convince supporters that the party understands their concerns and is ready to address those. As I explained last week, the Trumpet believes the CSU might need someone like Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.

Third, watch Angela Merkel negotiate her new coalition government.

Merkel now has to form what is being called a Jamaica coalition. This is a coalition between the CDU, the Free Democrats, and the Greens. But Merkel will also have to negotiate with a fourth party: the CSU. After Sunday’s election, the CDU can no longer take CSU support for granted. Merkel can no longer just expect the CSU to support her positions and views.

Angela Merkel must bring all four parties together to form a government. This is not going to be easy. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be impossible. There are two or three issues that the Free Democrats and the CSU have virtually opposite views on. It’s going to be difficult for Merkel to satisfy both sides.

Negotiating a new coalition could take weeks, even months. This means Germany’s government is going to be distracted and inward-focused. Berlin isn’t going to be nearly as confident and stable as we’ve come to expect. If and when Germany’s new coalition does finally form, it is likely to be fragile and sluggish. Angela Merkel won’t be ruling with freedom and confidence. And the decision-making process will be slow and cumbersome, filled with tension and disagreements.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see Merkel’s new coalition administration becoming a lame-duck government. If this happens, it will impact Germany’s behavior and leadership in the European Union, as well as in international affairs, the Brexit negotiations and other arenas. We’ll have to wait and see, but it’s hard for me to see this ending well for Merkel or for Germany. And I think it is highly likely that Germany, in the coming weeks and months, will move toward a much larger, and much more significant, political crisis.