BERLIN – With Europe bogged down by the financial crisis and its national governments failing or being voted out of office across the continent, Germany has looked like an island of prosperity and stability. Chancellor Angela Merkel has appeared to be the embodiment of the new strength of old Europe’s problem child, a country admired by some and hated by others.
But that was last month. Since then, the country’s president, Christian Wulff, who was elected with Merkel’s support, has been forced to resign, owing to mistakes he made as Minister President of Lower Saxony. Befittingly, his fall came at the high point of German carnival: while Catholics in Germany’s West and South celebrated, East German Protestants in Berlin consolidated their hold on power. Germany will have a Protestant pastor as its head of state, in addition to being governed by a Protestant pastor’s daughter.
This is hardly an issue for ordinary Germans, because religion plays almost no role in German public life (so long as the religion in queston is not Islam). But it is a huge issue for the main governing party in Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and even more so for its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Both parties are successors to the Catholic German Center Party, which fought against Protestant predominance in Prussia and Bismarck’s Reich. With the backing of Catholic majorities in western and southern Germany, the CDU and the CSU have been the traditional governing parties in the post-war German Federal Republic since the days of Konrad Adenauer. Loud grumbling over the protestant ascendancy can be expected within both parties.
The real danger of the current presidential crisis and its solution for Merkel lies elsewhere, namely in the political calculations that made Joachim Gauck, the new German president, a candidate in the first place.
As a rule, German presidential elections are highly charged events, because they can be an early indicator of emerging new political majorities. Moreover, the chancellor is not directly elected, and can be removed only by a constructive motion of no confidence, meaning that a parliamentary majority selects a new chancellor.
This makes all majorities against a governing chancellor highly dramatic, because they reflect his or her declining power. This is particularly true if such a majority is assembled against the chancellor on a central personnel issue, as the selection of the president certainly is. That is what happened in Gauck’s election.
Until last weekend, Merkel seemed to be standing on rock-solid political ground. She is highly respected internationally, at the height of her popularity at home, and has no rivals to fend off within her own party. True, popular support for her coalition partners, the Free Democrats (fdp), has plummeted to 2%; but the CDU/CSU are still clearly leading the Social Democrats (SPD, the largest opposition party), and the left is fragmented into four parties, two of which are not government material.
So, even if Merkel’s coalition should fail at, or even before, the next federal election, it was always assumed that no one could seriously challenge her chancellorship, and certainly not within a renewed “grand coalition” with the SPD. There simply seemed to be no majority against Merkel.
This gross miscalculation overlooked the growing angst of her ailing coalition partners, the FDP, about their chances of survival. In the short time since the decision to elevate Gauck to the presidency, the granite beneath Merkel’s feet has become political quicksand. What happened?
Quite simply, the FDP ditched her and changed sides on a critical issue, aligning itself with the main opposition parties in supporting Gauck. Suddenly, the prospect of a new majority beckoned, and Merkel was faced with the choice of giving in or ending the coalition. She grit her teeth and gave in. But the rupture within her coalition can no longer be papered over.
Gauck’s candidacy was forced through by an SPD/Green/FDP majority, which emerged from intersecting political interests. But this only makes the matter more dangerous for Merkel, because such episodes are what the beginning of the end for German chancellors usually look like.
The trust between the governing parties is gone. State elections this spring will show whether the FDP maneuver lifts the party above the 5% electoral threshold needed to remain in parliament, or whether fear of certain death led them to political suicide. If the FDP survives and a center-right coalition cannot gain a majority (which is likely), the party will seek an alliance with the SPD and the Greens, costing Merkel the chancellorship in 2013.
This means that the CDU/CSU will no longer show any consideration for the FDP. If Merkel wants to protect her chancellorship, her only option after the 2013 general election is a grand coalition with the SPD, and, to emerge on top in such an arrangement, she needs every vote within the center-right camp that she can get.
For Merkel, the situation will be very serious from now on. She may have kept Europe’s crisis from Germany’s door, but that does not mean that Germany will not soon enter a crisis of its own.
*Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2012.