So, will Angela Merkel, wearing a caretaker hat, be delivering yet another address to the German nation on New Year’s Eve? The question was evoked by the person who may be about to succeed her as head of the government in Berlin, Olaf Scholz, whose party just shaded a very tight election on Sunday.
The Irish Labour Party’s allies, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), emerged just 1.6pc ahead of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the popular vote. Yet the SPD have 10 parliamentary seats more than the CDU and should be able to pull together modern Germany’s first three-party coalition.
But the business of government- making is getting more fraught, complex and time-consuming in Europe, with Ireland proving no exception to this. Last year it took 140 days, from voting on February 8 until June 27, to get a Taoiseach and government in Dublin.
In the Netherlands the voters went to the polls on St Patrick’s Day this year – but the quest for a new coalition by caretaker Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, continues. Last time German voters turned out in 2017, it took Chancellor Merkel almost six months to stitch together a coalition. Increasingly, the ‘caretaker PM’ hat is extremely prevalent each time these EU leaders gather in Brussels for summit meetings.
The German government formation task will not be easy for the SPD’s Olaf Scholz who is first up to try. The two most likely coalition allies, the Green Party on 118 parliamentary seats, and the liberal FDP Party with 92 MPs, pull in opposite political directions, and in each case their more radical fringes dislike engagement with one another. The FDP would be far happier allying with the Merkel’s old CDU colleagues. The Green Party would sit more easily with the slightly left-leaning SPD. But each junior coalition party has a pretty hefty shopping list and a high price for coalition support.
The FDP, with whom Ireland’s now defunct Progressive Democrats were once compared, are eyeing the finance minister’s job as the price of coalition. That would be a huge concession by the SPD who have outlined a more liberal approach to post-Covid economic management both in Berlin and Brussels.
The SPD penchant for more socially driven investment, and a more relaxed approach to restoring the tight EU deficit and debt rules which were relaxed due to Covid-19, would suit Ireland far better than policies more influenced by the FDP.
If coalition talks ultimately drag on and break down, the CDU could be back in the business of pulling together a coalition. Last time, in 2017, the liberal FDP looked set to align with Merkel’s CDU, but demurred at the last minute opening the way for a surprise ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD.
Scholz’s impression of victory in this past weekend’s election is in many ways relative to a tale of continuing decline beforehand. An SPD vote of under 26pc contrasts with a 41pc total in the 1998 general election. But the flush of victory is also garnished by Scholz’s own tale of being written off along with his party, and his extraordinarily skilful campaign in which he styled himself the national successor to Merkel’s path of continuity.
Merkel had huge personal support which, in her absence, did not stay with her party led by the uninspiring and accident-prone Armin Laschet. Her 16 years in power, with four election wins, speak for themselves about her political skill.
But critics also point to many issues which were neglected due to her age and innate conservatism. It is also clear that she badly managed the introduction of a successor who could in some way take her place. Laschet, who came through the middle as frontrunner, did not enthuse the CDU base, much less have a broader reach to a wider public. But we will definitely see Merkel sitting down with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the other EU leaders at their next EU summit, in little over three weeks’ time, on October 21. The slow pace of coalition-making is not necessarily a bad thing in itself.
We have before noted the unique case of Belgium which in recent years has set several records for the duration of caretaker administrations. Yet Belgium functions well enough economically and socially despite its unique way of doing politics. And there are more generally strong arguments in favour of a profusion of parties learning to share the business of government.
But this time, things are somewhat different. Germany, as the EU’s largest economy and the world’s fourth largest, needs an early strong and decisive government in Berlin – and so does the rest of Europe. The challenges of emerging from Covid-19, dealing with an energy crisis, tackling climate change, and other issues are all pressing and require leadership more than the care of a night-watch administrator.
After the flurry of this groundbreaking German election, the business of coalition horse-trading will retreat from international – and even national – headlines for a time. Already, it seems the Green Party and the FDP are going to sit and discuss their options for power-sharing before entering talks with the potential more senior partners.
We must hope for early news – but don’t hold your breath.