The 2017 German election left many people in shock. Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a far right populist party, gained unprecedented ground in the Parliamentary elections. This led to problems for the coalition-building process in Parliament, as parties struggled to form a majority alliance. After months of back and forth talks and ominous press coverage, the grand coalition (Große Koalition, or GroKo) of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrat party re-formed an alliance they had sworn off after the election. The disunity evidenced in the coalition building process and the implications of a continued grand coalition in Germany do not bode well for the future of a politically polarized country.
The “grand coalition” in German Parliament forms when the two largest winners in a Parliamentary election team up in a majority voting bloc. This is quite rare, as typically the two largest parties represent different facets of society and fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The Christian Democrats and the Democratic Socialists came together in 2005 to form the second grand coalition in German history. The coalition, led my Angela Merkel, lasted until 2009 when Merkel formed a coalition with the Free Democrats. But it was picked back up again in 2013, and made it through to the 2017 elections.
What has this consistency meant for Germany? Angela Merkel has been the chancellor for going on 13 years. This is quite a long time. And for most of those years, the German Parliament has been headed up by a grand coalition of the two centrist parties, with Merkel’s Christian Democrats leaning center-right and the Social Democrats leaning center-left. This is remarkable, given the enormous shift in Germany’s role on the global stage and a volatile social situation at home. Something was bound to change – and it did in 2017. Well, sort of.
After the 2017 elections, there was no longer a clear path for the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats to continue their alliance. In fact, Social Democrat members made many adamant public statements against another incarnation of the grand coalition. It wasn’t that the two centrist parties had changed so much that they couldn’t work together. It was that there would be a new opposition in Parliament: Alternative für Deutschland. This alt-right party had unexpectedly received come in third place, and with them as the largest party outside of the coalition, they would become the official opposition.
This was not an option for many more centrist politicians. Alternative für Deutschland expressed many of the populist, far-right views that have become familiar in recent years. Much of the rhetoric was focused on a nationalism that excluded immigrants and foreigners, and there was added emphasis on doing away with political correctness. This rhetoric in itself has negative implications for Germany’s democracy, as it relies on ad hominem attacks and exclusionary proposals. Because the center parties did not want to grant populism more of a voice in Parliament, there was an opportunity for a “Jamaica” coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats, and the Green Party – a far more left-leaning coalition than the grand coalition.
And so talks began. And they continued. And then they went on some more. The discussions lasted for months, but there was no room for compromise between the three parties. This is a warning sign about democracy in Germany. The talks were highly publicized, and the apparent inability of the German Parliament to efficiently form a new government does not bode well for public faith in the system. Without public confidence in the ability of a democracy to effectively govern, opportunity to fundamentally alter the system’s democratic principles opens up. In Germany, there were even talks of a revote.
And then, from the dead, the grand coalition emerged once more. Far from being a celebratory collaboration across the political spectrum, the grand coalition passed with just 9 votes over the majority required and was met with…well, just about nothing. There was very little excitement. At most, there was some relief at the end of protracted negotiations. The establishment will remain firmly entrenched in Germany. For now.
This continuation of the status quo in the Parliamentary majority opens Germany up to democratic backsliding in the coming years due to growing polarization. Although the Alternative für Deutschland’s offensive propaganda and exclusionary politics are dangerous, this grand coalition’s centrist politics are just as real of a threat to democracy in Germany.
Because there has been no change to the majority, the large percentage of the population who shifted their support to the Alternative für Deutschland during the last election will likely only grow more dissatisfied. Gathering power in the center, between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, has already alienated the extremes and pushed them farther to either side. This will only continue.
As political scientist Jan Müller Werner argues in his book What is Populism, ignoring or belittling the opposition’s claims often only exacerbates the issue and increases strength of support for the populist party. The outspoken attempts of the German center to avoid giving power to the Alternative für Deutschland and their subsequent unwilling submission to their role as the official opposition has done just this. The only hope for the future of German politics lies in the possibility of a grand coalition that both shifts its policy decisions and seeks out the root of the far right’s demands. Without these efforts, it is very likely that democracy will erode in Germany due to increased polarization across the political spectrum. The difficult coalition building process was just the beginning.