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What happens if coalition talks fail?

Jefferson Chase
November 6, 2017

The Free Democrats say there's no guarantee they'll do a deal for a new German government with the conservatives and Greens. Are they just bluffing, or do they think they'd stand to gain if a new election were called?

woman with Jamaica shopping bag
Image: imago/Ralph Peters

Talks to return Chancellor Angela Merkel at the head of a new three-way "Jamaica" coalition resumed on Monday, with politicians vowing to start working concretely on possible compromises. But as if to illustrate how much the conservative CDU-CSU, the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens still need to iron out, there is disagreement about whether the coalition negotiations will succeed at all.

Read more: What you need to know about Merkel's coalition talks for next German government

Over the weekend, FDP leader Christian Lindner raised the possibility that talks could fail, which would necessitate new elections. And he reiterated that stance in Berlin on Monday.

"The chances are 50-50, and whether the odds get a bit longer or shorter is something we'll see at the end of this week or the next," Lindner said. "We don't want a new election, but we're not afraid of the voters."

Statements like these are in marked contrast to those from the Greens, who see no alternative but to make the coalition talks work.

"I have to say that this idle talk about a new election is very irresponsible," Greens co-chairman Cem Özdemir said earlier on Monday. "We weren't elected to tell the voters we don't like the result of the [last] election."

Conservative leaders also seem to consider a Jamaica deal inevitable. The CDU state premier of Schleswig-Holstein, Daniel Günther, who leads a regional coalition with the Greens, has even urged his own party to make compromises on the national level.

To synchronize or not to synchronize

All the parties involved in the negotiations, which officially began with exploratory talks on October 18, have figures who play hardball by highlighting the difficulties of reaching a compromise and criticizing the other parties. The FDP is different, however, in that this figure is the party chairman. On Monday Lindner specifically mentioned differences with conservatives over education and the Greens on climate protection.

"In the next phase, we want to get away from the headlines and down to concrete facts and plans, which we must and can synchronize – or perhaps can't synchronize," Lindner said.

There are historical reasons for this caginess. In 2013, the FDP failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle needed to sit in parliament after spending four years as the conservatives' junior coalition partners. The party blamed that humiliation on perceptions that it had become a mere lapdog of Merkel and is determined to avoid raising any such impressions this time around.

At the same time, the FDP has arguably the least to lose from a fresh election. The party's primary goal in the latest national poll on September 24 was to clear the 5 percent hurdle, which it did with ease, getting 10.7 percent of the vote. If voters cast new ballots, polls indicate that the Free Democrats would likely be able to repeat that result. And that, in turn, allows them to be intransigent – but only up to a point.

A coalition as a national responsibility

Jamaica coalition negotiators
Thus far things haven't been all hugs and kisses between the negotiatorsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

The Greens, who got 8.8 percent of the vote in September, are in a position similar to the FDP. But since the party has been in the opposition since 2005, the desire to share power in the government is likely somewhat greater.

The partner that stands to lose the most if Jamaica talks fail is undoubtedly the conservatives. Merkel's image took a hit after the CDU only polled 32.9 percent, and the previously unassailable chancellor feels compelled to re-assert her leadership abilities. Meanwhile, the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, is reeling from its own electoral losses and is in the midst of a leadership struggle.

So it's no wonder that conservatives are portraying successful coalition talks as something of a national duty. On Monday the CDU's Volker Kauder, a member of the party's negotiating team, said that Germany's neighbors were looking to Berlin for leadership and expected a stable government to be formed soon. 

 "It wouldn't make a very good impression if the coalition talks failed," Kauder said.

Voters still in favor of Jamaica

Voters have little desire to go back to the pollsImage: Getty Images/J. Schlueter

Nor do the majority of German voters crave another election. Polls indicate that while more people are skeptical whether a deal will be done, most still want the three-way coalition to succeed.

"[The drop] is because there hasn't been much progress at the talks in Berlin," the head of the Forsa polling agency, Manfred Güllner, told a group of newspapers. "Nonetheless, a significant majority wants a Jamaica partnership because it's the only option that represents the will of the voters."

It's not unusual for coalition talks after German general elections to drag on. In 2013, it took two months and five days for the CDU-CSU and the SPD to agree on the terms of a grand coalition. In 2009, the conservatives and the FDP needed a full month to reach a deal, even though they were considered natural allies.

Representatives of the parties involved in this year's talks have stressed that it would be unreasonable to expect quick results.

"We've spent years spelling out our differences, so it would lack credibility, if we wrapped everything up after only 10 days," said the head of the CDU in Rhineland-Palatinate, Julia Klöckner.

Klöckner added that the initial coalition talks had been spent identifying the sticking points to a coalition agreement. The parties hope to conclude their exploratory talks and start working on a coalition contract by November 16.