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Germany needs to win back lost trust

March 14, 2018

It has been the longest period in modern German history between a national vote and the election of a chancellor. The country's president has seen off the new government with words of caution, says DW's Christoph Strack.

Merkel and Steinmeier
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

The vote is in: Angela Merkel is again Germany's chancellor. For the fourth time, the parliament has made her head of government. At least 35 members of Merkel's coalition voted against her, putting the 63-year-old just nine votes over the majority needed.

Such a weak showing is not new for this marriage of convenience between Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats. As much as 10 percent of grand coalition members voted down her candidacy in both the 2005 and 2013 secret ballots. But a majority is a majority nonetheless.

Read more: Five oddities in the German government's coalition agreement

Given the last six months of turmoil that have shaken the country, the election outcome is a signal for German politics, and the coalition parties have made "new" a key term in their governing agreement. And one could have easily expected an outcome other than unity from the coalition talks, which is itself also a signal.

Challenges abound

Germany finally has a sitting chancellor and a functioning government, not just acting ones. That is all the better given the many domestic and foreign challenges the country faces. The ongoing debate over food banks and poverty has revealed new fissures in German society that extend beyond the matter of refugees. On the foreign front, Europe, especially France's President Emmanuel Macron, has been waiting. Meanwhile, a trade war looms with the US driven by its president, Donald Trump, and tensions between the UK and Russia are on the rise.

Strack Christoph
DW's Christoph Strack Image: DW

The chancellor's election is the culmination of 171 days of political struggle. What began with exploring new coalition territory with the Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats fell into a helpless abyss, bringing about an old-new awakening. These 171 days have shown us that Germany's political system is prepared to weather such storms. That is a good sign. Yet Germans should be more humble when assessing the political processes of other countries facing comparable hurdles in more economically difficult times. Merkel's fourth term may be her biggest test yet.

Germany's president: More than ceremonial

Before midday on Wednesday, Merkel had paid two visits to President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. While it is a long-held, constitutionally codified ritual for the chancellor to receive the president's appointment in connection with his or her swearing in and again in the company of the new Cabinet ministers, Merkel's visits this time around were more than mere standard procedure.

Read more: Five important demographic facts about the new German government

Merkel would not be here today without this president's conscious and urgent intervention in December. Steinmeier reminded the party leaders of their responsibilities. The rest is history; so too is the idea of the German presidency being regarded as purely ceremonial.

The president's comments on Wednesday were fitting. "Simply rehashing old ways will not be enough to win back lost trust. This government must prove itself anew and differently." Steinmeier's surprisingly clear and fundamental reminder serves as a prudent headline for the new government coalition.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C
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