Merkel Moves to Salvage Fourth Term as President Weighs In

Updated on
  • Steinmeier urges new negotiations after coalition talks fail
  • ‘Caretaker chancellor’ faces minority rule, fresh election
Merkel’s future has been thrown into doubt. Bloomberg’s Matt Miller reports.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is determined to extend her rule over Europe’s largest economy with or without a governing majority.

Stung by the sudden collapse of coalition talks, Merkel turned to President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and her Christian Democratic Union officials to find a way forward that may result in minority rule. Steinmeier told reporters after their meeting that he’s urging all parties to return to the negotiating table and avoid a new election, calling the stalemate unprecedented in recent history.

“All those involved should pause again and rethink their positions,” he said. “I expect everyone to be willing to talk to make it possible to form a government in the foreseeable future. Those who seek political responsibility in elections must not be allowed to shy away from it when they hold it in their hands.”

Disputes among a grab-bag of disparate parties over migration and other issues led the Free Democrats to walk out of the talks late Sunday. The CDU’s worst electoral result since World War II in September was still enough to hand Merkel a fourth term, but without a clear mandate she risks governing with shifting alliances, which would run counter to her promise of political stability.

“As chancellor, as caretaker chancellor, I will do everything to make sure this country continues to be well governed through the tough weeks ahead,” Merkel, 63, told reporters in Berlin in the early hours of the morning. “It’s a day at the very least for a profound examination of Germany’s future.”

The president typically plays only a ceremonial role in German politics, acting as the nominal head of state but without real power. Amid the current deadlock though, Steinmeier will be a key figure, prodding parties toward a coalition or engineering a minority government. If those efforts fail, it’ll be up to him to call new elections.

The Social Democrats, the junior partner in Merkel’s last government, won’t join another coalition with the CDU, even if Merkel herself steps aside, leader Martin Schulz said Monday, repeating a position his party has stuck to since the September vote.

Investors shrugged off the disarray, with both the euro and Germany’s DAX stock index rebounding from earlier losses. Still, the political uncertainty surrounding the European Union’s most powerful leader should be a wake-up call, according to Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING-Bank AG.

“Europe has lost another illusion: Germany is no longer the role model of political stability,” Brzeski said.

Germany’s influential DIHK chamber of industry and commerce, a big business lobby, called for “sensible compromises” from all parties.

“A chance has been missed to go beyond ideological boundaries and agree realistic solutions,” DIHK chief Eric Schweitzer told the DPA newswire.

Merkel’s biggest setback since she first won the chancellorship in 2005 follows unusually contentious exploratory talks. Policy divides over immigration, climate and energy proved so wide that even Merkel, once dubbed “the queen of the backrooms,” couldn’t bridge them.

Read more: German Far-Right AfD Is in Parliament. Now What?

Christian Lindner, the chairman of the Free Democrats, or FDP, said the draft agreement to enter formal coalition talks contained “countless contradictions.” The FDP advocates a “turnaround” plan for the economy that includes more business-friendly measures and wants to allow countries to leave the euro in an orderly way without quitting the EU.

“On the big questions, there were no concessions,” Nicola Beer, Free Democrat general secretary, said on ZDF television.

Populist Surge

Disagreements over limiting migration dogged the talks from the start. It’s a measure of the fallout from the election, which saw the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany enter parliament with 12.6 percent of the vote. 

Many former voters of the CDU and its Bavarian CSU sister party switched allegiance to Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which ran against the establishment in general and Merkel’s asylum policy in particular. Her bloc’s electoral tally tumbled to 32.9 percent, its worst performance since 1949.

“It was our resounding electoral success that was breathing down the negotiators’ necks,” AfD party leader Joerg Meuthen, who welcomed the breakdown of the talks, said on Facebook on Monday.

During the last campaign, the chancellor defended her support for open borders during the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016, saying allowing about a million asylum seekers into Germany was the right thing to do.

Andreas Scheuer, the CSU general secretary, said he was disappointed because potential coalition parties had narrowed many of their differences when the FDP pulled the plug.

“These will undoubtedly be difficult weeks for our country,” Scheuer said. “We must now reach clarity on how we want to lead our country into the future. Our citizens want Germany to have a stable government.”

— With assistance by Chad Thomas, and Arne Delfs

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