Even before Chancellor Angela Merkel finishes negotiations on her third-term coalition, German political leaders have begun jostling over its successor.
In the state of Hesse, where Frankfurt is the biggest city, Merkel’s Christian Democrats are talking about their most ambitious partnership with the Green party. Meantime, Social Democrats voted at a national convention to break a self-imposed taboo and consider governing with the Left, the descendants of the East German Communists, as they seek a path back to power after three losses to Merkel.
The tentative shifts suggest a threat to the consensus backing economic competitiveness that has dominated policy making for more than a decade. The political wrestling centered on Frankfurt, Germany’s bastion of financial stability and home of the European Central Bank, is reviving the region’s role as a testing ground for political alliances.
“We’re thinking in new terms when we think about coalitions now,” Andrea Roemmele, a professor of politics and civil society at the Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance, said by phone. “It’s an exciting time.”
As the two biggest parties flirt with unconventional partners, the CDU and SPD are struggling at the national level to renew Merkel’s first-term coalition, in which the Social Democrats were junior partners. In Hesse, SPD and CDU leaders meet today in the latest attempt to form a state government.
“Everything is still wide-open,” eight weeks after the state vote on Sept. 22, said Uwe Jun, a political-science professor at the University of Trier. The CDU, which won the most votes, has yet to choose between the SPD and the Greens.
That means overcoming tribal party allegiances and mistrust from Merkel’s first term, when the Social Democrats tried to form a minority government in Hesse that was tolerated by the Left. The effort, which collapsed after eight months, hurt the SPD nationally before the 2009 election, when Merkel won a second term.
Hesse has a history as a political laboratory. Joschka Fischer, a former stone-throwing student radical from Frankfurt, took the Greens into a state government there for the first time in 1985. In 1998, he led them to national power as junior partner in the first SPD-Green administration under Gerhard Schroeder.
This year’s attempt to break the mold is playing out in the state capital of Wiesbaden, a spa town 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Frankfurt. Legislators walk up a thick red carpet to an annex to the former palace of the 19th-century dukes of Nassau, a stately surrounding that belies Hesse’s reputation for polarized politics.
As recently as 2011, the Left published a study naming former Nazi party members elected to the state legislature after World War II. Among them was Alfred Dregger, the CDU national parliamentary leader during the 1980s and namesake of the state party’s headquarters.
“The divide between CDU and SPD is deeper in Hesse than elsewhere,” Janine Wissler, the Left’s leader in the state parliament, said at her legislative office in Wiesbaden. “The political climate is traditionally rough.”
That hostility is the Greens’ opportunity. A CDU-Green government “is possible if we get a stable program,” acting state premier Volker Bouffier, a Christian Democrat, was quoted as saying in an interview with Die Welt on Nov. 9. The CDU won 38.3 percent of the vote on Sept. 22, the SPD 30.7 percent and the Greens 11.1 percent.
The CDU and Greens agree that Frankfurt’s financial industry is indispensable to the economy and back snaring a share of overseas trading in China’s yuan for the city. “Of course that’s in our interest,” Al-Wazir said.
The main obstacle to a coalition is the proposed third terminal at Frankfurt’s Rhein-Main Airport, which the CDU supports and the Greens oppose. In the meantime, the CDU is keeping its options open with the SPD.
Bouffier and Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel, the regional SPD leader, split their time between Hesse and Berlin, where both are taking part in the national talks led by Merkel. Schaefer-Guembel keeps track with three red booklets, two for the national talks and one for his home state, he said in an interview.
After three consecutive defeats to Merkel, the Social Democrats are also feeling their way toward new allies.
Convention delegates in Leipzig backed a proposal by SPD leaders on Nov. 14 to consider an alliance with the Left party as early as the next federal election in 2017. The SPD says that would require changes by the Left, which wants to nationalize banks and dissolve the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Reaching out to the Left is anathema to Merkel, who grew up under Communism in former East Germany and says she rebuffed recruiters of its Stasi secret police. She has been pragmatic since coming to power; in 2005, she allied with the SPD and then dumped them for the Free Democrats in her second term.
In Hesse, Merkel’s party faces the choice between risking a new option and a tried-and-true coalition that matches the one she’s setting up nationally. The chancellor hasn’t indicated her preference.
While the CDU governs with the Greens in at the municipal level in Frankfurt, and they jointly ran the city-state of Hamburg between 2008 and 2010, Hesse with its 6.1 million people would be the most populous region yet.
“It’s progress that everyone is talking with almost everyone else,” Tarek Al-Wazir, the Green leader in the Hesse state legislature who is putting out feelers to Merkel’s CDU, said in an interview. “Whatever happens, it’ll be something new.”