If Germany is known for anything in recent world politics, it is stability and consistency. So it might have shaken leaders of other democracies to watch two German politicians declare on Sunday night that they had been elected chancellor – especially after an election campaign in which neither of them revealed much about their foreign-policy plans.
“It’s a very clear mandate for us … a very good, clear mandate for Germany,” declared Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic leader, whose party appeared to hold a slight lead late Sunday. Moments later, the Christian Democratic Union’s Armin Laschet echoed that view for his own party.
Given that neither attracted more than 26 per cent of the vote, it was not at all a clear mandate for anyone. And it might take months to find one.
It’s a disconcerting sign that the Pax Angela – the 16 years of predictable, largely unadventurous German stability under Chancellor Angela Merkel – is coming to an end. Whether that’s better or worse for Canada and its allies will take a long time to determine.
Germany is now part of a trend of hyper-fragmentation that has swept the world’s parliamentary democracies. With neither of its two traditionally dominant political parties holding a clear lead, Germany’s next government will almost certainly entail three political parties, with major cabinet positions going to both the Green Party and the business-minded Free Democratic Party.
It will also entail a prolonged period of coalition negotiations, of the sort more often seen in the Netherlands, Denmark or Italy, in which an ideologically diverse group of parties searches for hard-to-find common ground.
“We’ll have to find a new government from the centre of parliament, we’ll have to find as many commonalities as we can between probably three political parties,” Mr. Laschet declared during a TV leaders’ debate. It would be the first three-party coalition since the 1950s.
It occurs at an inconvenient moment for the democratic world. At the end of a month in which deep divides emerged among the countries that sometimes call themselves the “rules-based international order” – including the Washington-provoked contretemps with France and Britain over Australian submarines, the animosity over the botched end of the Afghanistan war, and the tensions after the U.S.-brokered conclusion of Canada’s Chinese hostage crisis – it is disconcerting to watch Germany enter a prolonged period of confusion.
Yet Germany is not as unstable as it might have appeared on Sunday night. Ms. Merkel remains Chancellor until the new government is formed – and, as such, there’s a good chance she will hold that position until Christmas.
And the threat of rising political extremism, so palpable during Germany’s 2017 election, now appears to have been a flash in the pan. The far-right, racially intolerant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party remains in parliament, but has fallen in the polls and been relegated to a largely regional status in the former East Germany. The neo-communist Left Party fell to 5 per cent, barely enough to retain seats in the Bundestag. Neither has any prospect of playing a part in government.
This means Germany’s future will likely be hashed out in coming weeks among four parties that have all held major cabinet positions in national governments during the past 20 years. While their views differ widely on fiscal and key foreign-policy matters, the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens hold relatively similar positions on the need to combat climate change and shift away from heavy manufacturing to high-tech services, and a broad interest in European integration, albeit from different perspectives.
The real excitement in German elections usually takes place long after the votes have been counted, and often drags on for a long time. In 2017, it took almost six months for Ms. Merkel to form her fourth government, so resistant were her partners the Social Democrats to take part in another so-called grand coalition. In 2005, it took 16 days for Social Democratic chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to concede that he’d lost to Ms. Merkel.
And while the complexity of the coalition might make some vital decisions more difficult, its ideological breadth might allow Germany to do something its allies have long hoped it could: Break free from the ultracautious politics of self-preservation that have limited its role in co-operative international initiatives during the Merkel years to one of brokering compromises.
An open question is whether the next government will be more willing to try resolving the rifts that divide Western democracies over how to confront rising authoritarianism in China, Russia and Central Europe.
Mr. Scholz, who as finance minister in Ms. Merkel’s last government was an outspoken voice of greater European economic and political unification and broadly favourable toward immigration, was largely silent during his campaign on these larger questions of international alliances and the degree to which Germany confronts or engages with less democratic states. In the coming weeks of heated negotiations, some answers may begin to emerge.
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