It’s not a question of whether “Mutti” (Mom) will still be in power after the German election this Sunday (22 September). Of course she will: Chancellor Angela Merkel, the "mother of the nation," will soon overtake former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to become the longest-ruling female leader in modern European history. The question is what kind of government she will lead.
It’s a big question, because Germany is the economic powerhouse of the European Union. The fate of the troubled euro currency will be decided in Berlin, as will the associated project for a closer political union.
Germany has only 80 million of the EU’s 400 million citizens, but Angela Merkel is indisputably its main decision-maker. However, she cannot make those decisions alone. Coalitions are inevitable in German politics.
Neither the main conservative party, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (permanently allied to its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union), nor the biggest left-wing party, the Social Democrats, ever wins enough seats to rule alone.
And Merkel may have to form a different coalition after this election, because its current partner, the centre-right Free Democratic Party, is going down.
The business-friendly Free Democrats were always the most comfortable coalition partner for both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, so they have been in government for all but 19 of the past 64 years.
However, they were always a junior partner, obliged to accept and defend the right- or left-wing policies of the bigger coalition member, and over the years they have gradually lost their own distinctive identity.
In last week’s local elections in Bavaria, the second-largest German state, the Free Democrats got only 3 percent of the vote, well short of the 5 percent threshold they must pass to win any seats in the state assembly.
The same 5 percent threshold applies in federal elections on Sunday, which means they will probably not make it back into the Bundestag (the federal parliament) either. So if they are unavailable as a coalition partner, who else is there?
There are the Greens, who once looked well on their way to replacing the Free Democrats as the third-largest party. Last year, in the aftermath of the disaster at Fukushima, their anti-nuclear power policy seemed justified to many Germans, and they were polling up to 30 percent of the vote.
But Angela Merkel promptly declared that her own party would close down all of Germany’s nuclear reactors, stealing the Greens’ main issue, and their support began to plummet.
So what did the Greens do to win the voters back? They declared that there should be a “vegetarian only” meal day once a week in office canteens and schools nationwide.
“How dare the Greens tell us what to eat!” blared the tabloid paper Bild the next day. Germans are meat-lovers – sausages are the national dish – and the furore over “Veggie Day” refused to die down.
Last week, for the first time in years, popular support for the Greens fell below 10 percent. They’ll still make it back into the Bundestag, but not with enough seats to make their preferred option of a Social Democrat-Green coalition viable.
A Christian Democrat-Green coalition is also imaginable, though it would not be the preference of either party. However, Angela Merkel’s party may not even win enough seats to make that possible.
Her personal popularity remains undented, but her party is bleeding support to the new “Alternative fuer Deutschland” party (AfD – Alternative for Germany).
The AfD only launched last February, but its proposal to kill the euro and resurrect Germany’s beloved former currency, the Deutschmark, or at least to kick the weaker economies of southern Europe out of the euro, got instant traction.
“It can’t be a taboo any more (to say) that it’s an option for Germany to return to the Deutschmark,” declared Roland Klaus, the AfD’s leader, and the party began its rapid rise in the polls.
It’s still not clear whether the AfD will win enough votes to clear the 5 percent threshold and enter the Bundestag, but it’s getting likelier by the day.
As a populist, nationalist, anti-immigrant party its support comes mainly from the right, that is, from people who used to vote for the Christian Democrats, but its euro policy is so toxic politically that it is not a candidate for a coalition with either major party.
The arithmetic for forming a new coalition is therefore getting harder and harder to do. Neither of the main parties has changed its standing much – Christian Democrats around 40 percent, Social Democrats around 25 percent – but the turbulence among the smaller parties has been so great that neither of the major parties is likely to be able to form a coalition without the other.
Which brings us back to the “broad” coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that neither major party wants, but both can tolerate if they must.
Indeed, that was the coalition that Angela Merkel led in her first term as chancellor in 2005-09. And poll after poll confirms that it is the coalition most voters would prefer to see – precisely because it would be unable to change very much. The Germans are happy enough right where they are.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.