Only three weeks after Germany’s federal elections, the important state of Lower Saxony voted in an important regional ballot. Even a few weeks ago, the polls were extremely negative for the Social Democrats (SPD), yet they improved tremendously in the closing stretch, and the SPD ended up replacing the Christian Democrats (CDU) as Lower Saxony’s biggest party for the first time since 1998.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel claimed victory for herself and the CDU/CSU in the September 24 federal elections, even though the two parties – with 32.9 percent of the vote – had lost staggering 9 percentage points of support since 2013. Her coalition partner, the SPD, fared almost as poorly.
Yet with astonishing nonchalance, Ms. Merkel considers herself irreplaceable (alternativlos) as Germany’s once and future chancellor. The SPD, fresh from the worst result in their postwar history (20.5 percent), drew an understandable conclusion from defeat and declared they would go into opposition.
That leaves Ms. Merkel with only the option of trying to cobble together a so-called Jamaica coalition, composed of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU (both of whose party colors are black), the market-oriented Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens. Of this bunch, the only party that could be called a winner is the liberal FDP – the rest came in badly below expectations. To build a coherent government out of these four ideologically diverse groupings will be extraordinarily difficult.
The Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) third-place finish with 13 percent of the vote – much-lamented by many – was immediately labeled a victory for right-wing radicalism. In fact, it was nothing of the sort. The AfD’s result was not a sign that the German electorate has been radicalized, but that it is disappointed with politics as usual.
All these developments were foreseeable and could have been avoided. But there was no willingness on the part of the traditional parties to recognize facts and necessities. Despite their supposed high-mindedness, they were perfectly willing to stoop to the same populism as their non-mainstream opponents. But having lost credibility, their only way to prevail was to pretend to be alternativlos.
There is, however, an alternative – a coalition composed of the CDU/CSU and the SPD, but without Chancellor Merkel. Casting Ms. Merkel aside might let the SPD rejoin the government, while allowing the Christian Democrats to regain a credible political line.
Despite her undoubted merits, keeping a credible line was not Ms. Merkel’s strong point – even though her pointless and wrongheaded efforts to stave off a Greek bankruptcy might appear so from the outside. Her supposedly bold stand on migration policy has also not been as consistent as claimed.
And the Christian Democrats are going to need all the credibility they can get. The CDU and the CSU have a tough reforming job ahead of them. These parties, especially the CDU, must return to their Christian conservative line and appoint personalities to match.
A grand coalition of the CDU/CSU and the SPD would also allow the resurgent Free Democrats to form a strong opposition, instead of being forced into an unhealthy Jamaica coalition.
The Social Democrats’ startling success in Lower Saxony may be of more than local importance. It could also be a message from the voters to the SPD to take responsibility on the federal level, in a coalition with the CDU/CSU. If so, there would be no place for Ms. Merkel.
Prince Michael of Liechtenstein is Chairman of the European Center of Austrian Economics Foundation.