When she became her party’s leader, Arsenal were champions of England, the portable CD player was a must-have and a little known Spaniard shot to fame with a ballad called ‘Hero’. Since then, she has won every election she has fought, endured long enough to be a major player under Helmut Kohl and to see the rise and fall of Gordon Brown. She is also, very possibly, the most important woman in the history of the world.
Angela Merkel has been around so long, it feels almost impossible to imagine a world without her. But for the German Left, the impossible dream is starting to feel tantalisingly real. While her own party remains the largest in the polls, and the situation for her personally has improved since the winter of 2011, when, weakened by U-turns and the Eurocrisis, it looked as if her government would be swept away in a landslide, her coalition looks to be irreparably damaged. The Christian Democrats’ coalition partner, the Federal Democratic Party – die Orangen Bücher, you might say – is languishing in the polls. A crushing defeat for the Christian Democrats in Germany’s most-populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, has sent shockwaves across the centre and right.
Poll after poll confirms it: at the next election, the CDU-CSU/FDP alliance will be unable to command a majority in the Bundestag, even with an uncomfortable and unlikely three-party alliance with the social-liberal, civil-libertarian Pirate Party, they would need to confirmed that this isn’t just a set of bad polls: Merkel’s coalition is damaged, and badly. Even a three-party alliance with the new Pirate Party – which would sit uncomfortably with that movement’s social-liberal credentials and civil libertarian broadsides against the Merkel government’s policies – would be unable to pass legislation without the support of at least one of the parties of the left.
The opposition SPD can smell blood, and they’re not the only ones. The CDU-CSU themselves are desperate for a way out. Only a year ago, Bundestag leader Volker Kauder took to the pages of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to sing the praises of the old days of the ‘grand coalition’ between the CDU and the SPD: that’s like Vince Cable calling for a new Lib/Lab pact in the comment section of The Times. The SPD, however, doesn’t want to play: they went into coalition with their mortal enemies in 2005 because they had no other option, and because they were desperate to get rid of Gerhard Schroeder. Now they sense the wind at their backs, and the prospect of governing as the major partners in a coalition, not playing second fiddle to the CDU.
In any case, the relative convergence of the two parties in 2005 – Schroeder aped Blair, while Merkel provided the blueprint to Cameron – that made the grand coalition feasible, if not comfortable, is long gone. Under Sigmar ‘Siggi Pop’ Gabriel, the SPD has moved significantly to the left since its last stay in government. But if not in grand coalition, what might an SPD-led coalition look like?
In all but a few polls – and assuming for a moment that the Pirate Party can actually translate its opinion poll rating into the hard currency of votes – the traditional SPD/Green alliance is a handful of points short of an overall majority, which would suggest either an SPD/Green minority governing with the co-operation, but not the participation in government, with the Pirate Party, or a liberal left coalition comprising the Social Democrats, Greens and the Pirates, or a tripartite coalition between the SPD, the Greens, and the Left Party.
The Left Party – Die Linke – and the SPD have a troubled past. The Left Party is effectively what would have happened if Gordon Brown had resigned from the government in 1999 and then formed his own party with Respect and the SWP in 2003. No love was lost between the two parties, and while some of the poison was drained after Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD defector and co-founder of Die Linke, resigned, it takes very little to set the two against each other. Any coalition between the three parties would be acrimonious and potentially unstable: it increasingly, however, looks like the only way that the old red-green alliance will be able to oust the Christian Democrats after next year’s election.
This week’s European Talking Points
- “This isn’t a government proposal, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be a good idea to suspend football for two or three years.” No, it’s not the semi-annual ‘Football is anti-progressive article’ linkbait on the New Statesman. It’s Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Monti, thinking out loud. In response to yet another round of serious allegations of match-fixing and corruption at the highest levels of Italian football, the silver-haired technocrat suggested bringing football in the country to a complete halt, something which government press officers quickly rowed back on. With his impromptu coalition showing signs of wear and tear, the left-leaning Democrats are gearing up for an earlier election than expected – although elections are almost always earlier than expected in Italy.
- In victory, revenge! During the Socialist party primaries, Martine Aubry was brutally dismissive of Francois Hollande’s ability to lead. “When I took over from Hollande [at Party Headquarters], nothing worked, not even the toilets,” she said at one point during the race for the nomination. While the two appeared to have reconciled during the Presidential election itself, Aubry was left out in cold when Hollande announced his first Cabinet, one which notably tacked to the centre, and excluded a significant number of big beasts on the party’s left. Hollande’s ex and defeated 2007 Presidential candidate Segolene Royal is tipped to be made President of the National Assembly should the Parti Socialiste win the legislative elections in June.
- It’s an inevitable truth of social democratic governments that, shortly after the first hundred days are up, the government and the trade unions will be at loggerheads. In Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s ‘plan for growth’ includes a radical series of labour market reforms, including the end of some bank holidays. With a recent survey showing that a majority of Danish employees believe the era of the trade union movement as a political player ‘are over’, it’s a test of strength for both Thorning-Schmidt and Harald Børsting, head of the Danish TUC.