International Consequences of the German Federal Election

Despite her stunning victory, the outcome of the German federal elections on September 22, 2013, has left Chancellor Angela Merkel in a political conundrum. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) are too weak to form a government majority. Among the three left-oriented parties—the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the The Left—only the first two are possible coalition partners. However, both are unwilling and wary: the Social Democrats lost almost 5 million votes in 2009 after they were the junior partner in a grand coalition under Merkel’s leadership for four years. Their successor in the governing coalition, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) suffered a similar fate, losing more than 4 million votes during the recent elections. The Green Party is healing its wounds after the disappointment from September 22 and is equally loath to form a coalition under Angela Merkel’s tutelage, fearing marginalization after that.

Merkel has the choice between two uncomfortable avenues. One option is a coalition with the SPD or the Green Party, but at the cost of making very substantial political concessions. The other option is a minority government, which will be constantly under pressure to secure majorities within the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, where the Social Democrats and the Green Party currently have a solid majority.

This dilemma will have profound foreign policy consequences. In terms of managing the euro crisis, the German position will most likely become softer. The Social Democrats as well as the Greens are less in favor of imposing harsh budgetary restrictions on the southern European states. They would rather see more money being put into those ailing economies in order to trigger new growth. Merkel will likely no longer be in a position where she can force austere, competitiveness-oriented fiscal policies on southern European governments. This is dangerous for Chancellor Merkel, since it was exactly this kind of European leadership that gave her a sweeping victory on September 22. Millions of Germans voted for her because they conceive of her as being an anchor of fiscal stability and see her as a solid guarantee against the German taxpayer footing the bills of indebted southerners.

Implications might be visible in other areas, too. The transatlantic orientation of the Merkel government is undeniable. But the issue is how much political capital the chancellor is ready to invest in defending transatlantic positions at a time when center-left parties in Germany target U.S. government actions whenever possible. Merkel’s recent hesitation at the G-20 summit on signing a document on Syria, which could have exposed her to domestic criticism by the SPD, the Greens, and the Left Party, gave us a foreshadowing of what might become the default mode of her foreign policy―and of that of her foreign minister, whoever it will be. Also, the Merkel government’s timid reactions to harsh criticism from the Social Democrats and the other parties on the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) intelligence activities might be a prelude to a more distant attitude toward the United States.

The Left Party is already anti-American, and the SPD is slowly moving in the same direction―although there are many devoted Atlanticists in their ranks. The Green Party has always been dominated by speakers who held strongly anti-American positions. But the Christian democratic parties in Germany have always been a bulwark against anti-Americanism. Whether this will hold under the new conditions remains open. Most likely, Germany will not be among the first volunteers whenever an international coalition seeks partners to intervene for humanitarian reasons or for the sake of international peace. German “ohne mich” pacifism has already become a brand for Germany’s new foreign policy. It might become even more so under a grand coalition or a Black-Green coalition―not to mention a minority government, which will be almost incapable of acting in matters relating to strategic affairs, including peace and security. The only exception might be climate diplomacy, where there is a broad consensus that Germany should be at the forefront of multilateral negotiations. However, the high tide of global governance in climate policy seems to be over.

Another open question is: what will the German position be toward Russia? There is already a big rift between those who criticize the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin and those who tend to support him. This rift goes through all major parties in Germany. Hence, there will most likely be no major change in Germany’s policy and attitudes toward Putin’s Russia. Whatever the outcome of current coalition negotiations, Germany will be less able to fulfill a leadership position within Europe or within the Atlantic alliance. Rather, the new Germany will demonstrate inaction in many areas of foreign affairs, sometimes it might look as if there is complete stasis in German foreign policy.

However, everything might end differently. Merkel is known as a skillful power broker and strategist. Maybe she can outwit her coalition partner or whoever forms the majority in parliament. The current Bundestag term might become very short. If it turns out to be impossible to form a coalition government, then either the President Joachim Gauck or Chancellor Angela Merkel might find ways to set the stage for new elections. This possibility alone might give Merkel an excellent instrument to force moderation on her coalition partners―whether they like it or not.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.