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Merkel's 'grand coalition' under fire

Jon Shelton
December 29, 2019

A poll has found that one-third of Germans want new elections. Right-wing populists are most eager to clear the decks, and the new SPD leadership has fueled concern about the stability of Germany's grand coalition.

Angela Merkel in Brussels
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/F. Augstein

The latest YouGov Germany poll on voter satisfaction with Angela Merkel's "grand coalition" bringing together the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) bloc and Social Democratic Party (SPD) found that roughly one-third of Germans would prefer early elections to a regular vote at the end of the current legislative period ending in 2021.

Overall, the poll found that 34% of voters want to be rid of the current coalition government, as opposed to 39% who say it should continue to serve until regular elections are held in the fall of 2021.  

Unsurprisingly, the most vociferous opposition to the current government comes from supporters of the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD). Perennially dissatisfied, some 71% of AfD voters said they want a new government.

Voters who back the socialist Left Party also favor new elections, but in far lower numbers (48%).

Voters supporting all of the country's other parties favor allowing the government to serve out its current term. Some 61% of CDU/CSU voters support the grand coalition (21% opposed), whereas 46% of SPD voters (36% opposed), 47% of voters from the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) (41% opposed) and 44% of the left-leaning environmentalist Green Party would like to maintain the status quo (36% opposed).

New leadership, new demands, new problems

One factor that has fueled concern about the demise of the grand coalition was the recent change in leadership at the top of the SPD in November. Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, both known skeptics of the current configuration, have said they intend to introduce a number of issues that need to be addressed if the coalition is to continue.

Read more: Opinion: New SPD leadership could bring Germany closer to new election

Although the two have emphasized the need to deal with issues such as raising the minimum wage and increasing infrastructure spending, the most divisive issue they have broached is the concept of introducing speed limits on German highways to provide safer roads as well as lower automobile emissions.

Divisive issue of speed

The topic of speed limits is to Germans what gun rights are to many in the US. Although many argue that Germany's system is unviable, endangering lives and fueling emissions, opponents of speed limits say they infringe on personal freedom.

Germany is the only country in the world without a general speed limit on its highways, with most countries in Europe having a maximum speed limit of 130 kmh (81 mph).

Germany's automobile industry is the most economically important business sector in the country and has built its reputation on producing cars and sport utility vehicles that are big and fast. Although it has pledged to lower emissions, Germany has thus far made little progress to that end, and automobile emissions remain stubbornly high despite investments in cleaner technologies.

The fight over speed limits has become a fault line between the coalition partners, with the SPD in favor of them and the CDU/CSU opposed. On Saturday, Michael Mertens of Germany's police union (GdP) called on the government to commission a scientific study of the issue in order to "establish valid numbers" on the pros and cons of the issue. Mertens said speed limits could "reduce the risk of grave accidents with deadly injuries" on German highways.

A rocky start and an uneasy partnership

In a European and Western political landscape in turmoil, Chancellor Merkel's current coalition has been seen as a bastion of stability since its latest incarnation came together in early 2018. Yet, the latest YouGov poll makes it clear that not everyone is satisfied. This is, however, not the first time the coalition appeared to be on the rocks. Here are a few of the past instances in which it looked to be in danger.

  • The grand coalition got off to a shaky start in 2018 after months of negotiations in the wake of federal elections in 2017. The Social Democrats, suffering electoral losses, were loath to join their conservative colleagues for a third time under Merkel. For their part, conservatives were infuriated that the SPD was given important Cabinet posts, such as the leadership of the country's Finance Ministry.
  • Turnover at the top of the SPD has also caused repeated concern about the coalition's life expectancy. One of Germany's largest parties, the SPD has been hemorrhaging voters for years. As a result, party leaders Martin Schulz and Andrea Nahles both stepped down in succession, ultimately giving way to the new coalition-skeptic duo of Esken and Walter-Borjans.
  • Criticism from allies within the CDU/CSU, foremost from hardline Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU, threatened to bring down the coalition after a drawn-out public fight between Seehofer, Merkel and the SPD over immigration in 2018.
  • The coalition was once again under threat when Hans-Georg Maassen, then head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, was forced to step down after being mired in controversy, only to be promoted to a new post in the Interior Ministry before ultimately taking an "early retirement" in November 2018.
  • Rumors of Merkel's demise were also fueled in September 2018, when her long-time political ally Volker Kauder was ousted as head of the CDU's parliamentary caucus. Many saw the inner-party vote as a blow to Merkel and a clear warning that her political career might be approaching its end.
  • Devastating losses in state elections for the CDU/CSU and SPD, most notably in Bavaria, also caused concern in Berlin, as they highlighted the waning power of Germany's traditionally strong popular parties in the face of rising approval for the Greens and, most prominently, for the far-right AfD.
  • Merkel's decision in March 2019 to step down as leader of the CDU also sparked concern that the coalition might be in its final days as the SPD rejected backing for her successor in the post, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has largely been touted as  Merkel's anointed replacement as chancellor after she exits the political stage in 2021..
  • European parliamentary elections provided yet another opportunity for prognosticators to warn of the coming end of the coalition after all three partners once again suffered major defeats in the May vote.
  • In early November 2019, CDU/CSU leader Kramp-Karrenbauer made it clear that she was resolutely opposed to calls for renegotiations of the coalition contract between the CDU/CSU and the SPD.
  • The election of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, both of whom have said they would be willing to leave the coalition if a new contract is not negotiated, is just the latest in a long list of ominous signs that Germany may soon be forced to head to the polls early. Analysts say that such a scenario would see a further electoral slide for the ruling parties, opening the door to further gains by the Greens, but more pointedly, the far-right AfD.

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