The republic without a government

Agora Contributor: Jens Bastian
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

More than three months after the general elections, Germany still does not have a new government. Public debates about possible government configurations are multiplying. Meanwhile, important decisions at the domestic and European level are stalling because of the political impasse in Berlin.

As 2018 beckons, the political vacuum in Berlin invites New Year resolutions with a sense of urgency. What is going on in Germany, the country associated with administrative stability and political predictability like no other in the European Union? Seeking answers to this formidable challenge has produced a new set of abbreviations in Berlin that are starting to enter the canon of political terminology in media and society.

First it started with Jamaica (the aborted four-party negotiations between the Conservatives, CDU/CSU, Free Democrats, FDP and the Greens). Then the return of the GroKo (Grand Coalition between the Conservatives and Social Democrats, SPD). Such a political arrangement has governed Germany during the past four years. It is unpopular among all participants, resembling more a marriage of convenience, and was politically defeated at the polls in September 2017.

Because of such unease, a new model, under the term KoKo, has been introduced, primarily by the SPD. It seeks to identify a number of policy priorities (e.g. the budget, foreign policy, refugees and migration) on which Conservatives and Social Democrats could agree to garner majorities in the Bundestag, while avoiding a formal GroKo. This arrangement implies a minority government that would be required to look for changing majorities for most legislative proposals submitted to parliament.

The sheer fact that the option of a KoKo is being considered leads back to the political earthquake that took place in Germany three months ago, the consequences of which have yet to be fully understood by voters, the MPs they elected and the political commentariat in Berlin. Alas, not even the nuclear option of German politics is off limits anymore: namely, new elections during the first half of 2018.

Jamaica, GroKo, KoKo, a minority government and new elections now form part of the political vocabulary of citizens, politicians, entrepreneurs and journalists who only three months ago thought that Germany was an island of stability and predictability surrounded by other EU member states that were – often desperately – looking for proverbial leadership from Berlin. Now it rather appears that desperation is a characterisation that more aptly applies to the negotiators tasked with finding a new government arrangement for the Chancellery in Germany.

There is a prevailing sense of needing to change course in Germany. While the winners and losers of the September elections are still trying to come to terms with the voters’ rebellion, the little they can agree on is at least the shared sense that “we cannot continue with business as usual”. But the fact that a GroKo, which was politically defeated at the polls is now back on the agenda is not only a reflection of the failed Jamaica deliberations.

The negotiators from the CDU/CSU and SPD are not united by a joint vision of how to take the country forward. What binds them together, reluctantly, to identify enough common ground is a deep-seated fear of the citizens as voters.

This fear has a flip side that has not escaped the voters’ attention. If the losers of the September elections again form a GroKo as if nothing happened in the meantime, then a rising number of citizens will use their ballot to exert even greater punishment than in September 2017. Put otherwise, why elections are held and what a voter can do with a ballot has become a very critical element of solving the current political quagmire in Berlin.

But does the ongoing vacuum not reflect a bigger narrative about the state of play in Germany? What if the impasse in politics is part and parcel of a deeper development in the political economy of the country? In addressing this question, a number of examples may illustrate the magnitude of change and challenges that policy-makers face in Germany today.

The outcome of the elections in September was strongly influenced by the twin issue of refugees and migration. As is increasingly becoming apparent, the “welcome culture” of mid-2015 has been overtaken by thorny issues such as limiting the number of arriving refugees, curtailing family reunification and the speed of executing deportations. The judicial system in Germany, municipal administrations and regional authorities are emphasizing that their respective capacities are at breaking point and not capable of handling the sheer number of (rejected) asylum seekers.

But the refugee and migration challenge is not only about numbers. Rather, what courts, mayors and regulators are articulating are the consequences of the “loss of control” that became evident in the “welcome culture” of 2015. Many citizens – angrily or within reason – now associate these summer months two years ago with a decline of the rule of law, non-functioning state entities and absent border authorities.

For a society like Germany, the experience or (retro-active) perception that state institutions are losing control and cannot deliver is political dynamite. Moreover, this experience was not only associated with refugees and migrants during the past two years. In the minds of many Germans (in particular women) the traumatic experience of being sexually assaulted at the central train station during New Year’s Eve in Cologne in 2015/16 remains a very raw and painful memory.

A completely different encounter with a loss of control was the terrorist attack carried out by the Moroccan Anis Amri during the Christmas market in Berlin a year ago. The relatives of the 12 victims have publicly expressed their anger at the federal German authorities and how slow they have been to respectfully address their loss. The violent events surrounding the G-20 summit in Hamburg in June of this year left the impression on residents in the city and beyond that the police temporarily lost control of streets and neighbourhoods to self-styled anarchists and widespread looting.

The debacle of building the new Berlin airport is by now legend. Already delayed by more than two years, citizens in the German capital and international observers are asking why it is taking so long to open a new international airport. Similarly, in the southern city of Stuttgart the hugely controversial modernisation of the central train station – the project “Stuttgart 21” - will take much longer than planned and already exhibits exorbitant cost overruns.

If major infrastructure projects cannot be completed on time and within budget, should we then be surprised that the project of forming a new government in the Berlin republic takes so long? In other words, are these failing airport and central train station projects, the inability to apprehend an Islamist terrorist who was on a police watch list, or the increasingly visible burden of managing the refugee and migration challenge the reflection of a much deeper malaise in Germany?

Much is in flux in Germany and the direction these developments are taking are not at all promising. To expect or articulate the need for “German leadership” under these circumstances and uncertainties is illusionary at best and politically naïve at worst. We have many reasons to prepare ourselves sooner rather than later for a prolonged political vacuum in Germany. Once we have a new government in Berlin, a sigh of relief may be in order in Paris, Brussels and Athens. But don’t expect any miracles or calls for leadership thereafter!

*You can follow Jens on Twitter: @Jens_Bastian

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