A lot can happen in four years. In the previous German general election the centre-left won a majority. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) was in a position to form a government with the Greens and the Left Party (Linke), which could have ended the political stagnation in Germany and might even have provided Europe with a new, progressive impulse. The SPD could just as well have forced Angela Merkel to head a minority government, giving the SPD a chance to influence policy as a strong opposition party. Instead the social democrats chose the line of least resistance, joining Merkel in a grand coalition and supporting policies that were the exact opposite of social democrat principles and goals.
Today the SPD is faced with a disaster of its own making, even though Merkel’s Union (a uniting of her Christian Democratic Party, CDU, and the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Socialist Union, CDU), had its worst election result in 50 years. One wonders how much free booze was served beforehand to those attending the election “celebration” at SPD headquarters in Berlin to make sure that the crowd cheered the speech of the party’s leader, Martin Schulz? The SPD does not have any viable political options left – something that at least the party leadership seem to have understood. But that will not stop the SPD from carrying on in the same manner. Without any real alternative policies the SPD will have difficulty developing a strong profile, especially when faced by the mixed bag of policies to be laid out by a future coalition of Merkel’s Union, with the Liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens.
The most ridiculous sound bite following the election results was the SPD’s incessantly repeated claim: “Together we win, together we lose”. This is the sort of thing one might expect of a football club that is facing relegation, where no one is willing to take responsibility for the debacle. For the SPD that means implicitly, we shall change nothing, and our leader was merely a figurehead, without the character to take responsibility for the failed party programme. Had Jeremy Corbyn not been so successful in the recent British general election, he would surely have resigned as head of the Labour Party, as he was responsible for its new progressive policy. In other words, since Schulz contributed nothing to the SPD’s political programme, he can hardly be held responsible for its failure.
In the television coverage following the initial election results, Ms Merkel appeared tired and frustrated. She too should have resigned – something she realised during the broadcast. The new coalition will be much more difficult to manage than with the SPD, because of the major policy differences between the FDP and Greens. She not only has to find compromises, she has to deal with the puffed up leader of the Liberal party, Christian Lindner.
During the election German society demonstrated that it has lost the measure of things political. Not just in the television debate between Merkel and Schulz, but in almost all the programmes produced by the media, the policy on refugees was trumpeted as the most important issue of the election. This provided the ultra-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), with its anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist, anti-muslim ideology with the ideal political nourishment. Ms Merkel has already answered innumerable questions concerning her refugee policy in 2015, but when the AfD declared that its principal goal, with its freshly won seats in parliament, will be to question the legality of some of those past policy decisions, she may well be thinking this might be too high a price for even her to pay.
It was therefore not surprising that, in the post-election television discussion, Ms Merkel agreed with Katja Kipping, co-leader of the Left Party, who complained that too much importance had been given to the refugee question and that other pressing issues had been ignored: social policy, increasing inequality, poverty and pensions, neglected investment in public infrastructure, the desolate state of the European Union. All of these were disregarded because of the irrational obsession of the German media, especially the state-owned media, with portraying the refugee policy as the most important election issue.
I do not believe that there is a particular right-wing bias behind this. But the refugee issue is an easy one for journalists to comprehend: the questions are clear and the differences between the parties are simple to identify. Why should journalists tackle difficult issues such as European economic and finance policy, when they can produce a much better show using such a simple issue?
What Germany can now expect will be an unprecedented descent into arguments about detail. Ms Merkel will try to press on with her policies as usual. The Greens, the weakest party in the coalition, will battle every inch of the way to improve Germany’s policy on climate change. The FDP will attempt to shrink the state wherever possible. This is a fundamental clash, even though the rhetoric of the two parties is similar. To prove that it has some say in policy the FDP will also press for more privatisation and support for medium-sized businesses. That will not only increase inequality in German society, it will also exacerbate past errors in Germany’s state pension programme.
The FDP’s EU policy is especially disastrous, and the Greens will probably not be strong enough to limit the damage done. The FDP wants to make every member state responsible for any negative developments, it refuses to recognise the EU imbalances caused by Germany, and would dearly love to introduce a bankruptcy law for individual EU states. Since the FDP has no economic policy worthy of the name, it will refuse to recognise the catastrophic policy errors of the past few years which even conservatives now take on board. Should Mr Lindner, manage to get himself made finance minister, we could all find ourselves begging for the return of Wolfgang Schäuble.