Thanks be to God! – Gottseidank! That, on Wednesday, was surely the reaction of millions of even nonbelieving Germans! After four and a half months of haggling and recrimination and, four days past the deadline, an all-night session, the three parties had finally settled on a coalition government program – 179 pages long. With a collective sigh of relief there could now be a return to normality. Neighboring premiers and presidents elsewhere thought also, happily or fearfully: Angela’s Germany can take the lead again in trying to settle Europe’s many problems.
But as that late great thinker and baseball player Yogi Berra once cautioned: “It ain’t over till it’s over”! And that fits the coalition deal. It’s still up in the air, like a long Yankee fly ball! Till now it was more like a traffic gridlock, with each party blocking the other two.
All three took heavy losses in last September’s national elections. The Christian Social Union (CSU), the further-right, only Bavarian sister of Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which has held sway in its Alpine and Danubian domain since 1949, unexpectedly lost ten percent of its voters to the near-fascist Alternative for Germany (AfD). Facing state elections in October, it fears losing even more. Horst Seehofer, its long-time leader, no longer maintaining his usual self-confident, sardonic smile but often with creased brow, is fighting for his political life within his own wounded party. After losing his job as chairman he simply had to oppose every concession to the Social Democratic Party which seemed even vaguely “leftist” to his hardline lederhosen-dirndl voters. And he had to win at least some key cabinet ministry for himself in the planned government!
The worries of the Social Democrats (SPD) were greater still! Their electoral beating last September was even more injurious; though still in second place, their position in the polls has plunged to a dangerously abysmal 18 %. The current chairman, Martin Schulz, blustered in September that neither he nor his SPD would remain a month longer in a coalition with the two Christian “Union” parties which already, in four years, had caused such a giant loss in popularity. But then, allegedly to save the nation, he ate crow and joined in the long coalition negotiations which, on Wednesday, finally came to a conclusion. Or did they?
A large minority of SPD Social Democrats had opposed this humiliating about-face. It meant suicide, they insisted, and waved No GroKo posters, for No Grosse Koalition (grosse means grand in German). To overcome this uppity rebellion the party leaders made all kinds of promises about the left-wing demands they would keep pushing. They warned: if too few of these demands were included in the final program deal it might well be rejected by the party membership, now standing at 463,000 (down from almost a million in 1990). Only the SPD had decided to put it to a vote, a mail-in referendum, to be conducted from February 20 to March 2. Twenty-five thousand had joined the party recently, its first big increase, but most of them expressly to vote “No”! If over half of those mailing in ballots reject the deal, Germany’s political maneuvering will be back at Square One!
Of course, these more progressive demands were exactly the ones which angered the conservative Bavarians the most, and many in Merkel’s CDU as well, who had also suffered severe losses in the September vote – also to the far-right AfD racists, who denounced Merkel’s welcome to refugees in 2015 as a blot on our pure “German culture”. She and her party have backtracked sharply since then, but that friendly smile and matter-of-fact way of speaking – as honored “mommy of the nation” – have lost too much of their appeal. For her, to keep her footing within her own party – with that right foot forward – and win herself a fourth term, some successful deal was imperative! So it was she who tried hardest to tie one up, even through the last night right until breakfast time!
And somehow, several days after putting off the deadline, they finally reached an agreement, with enough small gains and vaguely promised bigger ones to allay Social Democratic fears about losing their referendum yet without overly repelling the Bavarians or other rightist “Christians”.
Among the promises were increases in spending for education and child care, pensions and housing. With Germany’s current well-balanced budget these can easily be afforded. A few protections for people renting apartments from greedy owners were also included.
Some union leaders were more or less satisfied. Opposition parties were not, of course. Leaders of the LINKE (Left) asserted that the huge, escalating gap between the super-wealthy and poor would hardly be diminished, that the 20% child poverty rate (almost 25% in eastern Germany) would be alleviated only slightly, while individual, corporate and inheritance taxes on the extremely wealthy were to remain untouched – and low. Even the benefits offered were only goals or promises, and might well be diluted or forgotten as so often in the past.
Weapons export, in which Germany vies with France for fourth place, would be more controlled – sort of in a way – with no more weapons going to countries “directly” involved in the war in Yemen. The use of drones would be investigated, with no armed drones bought, at least for now. The question of an American drone guiding center and US atomic missiles on German soil – actually illegal – went unmentioned, and foreign policy questions were largely avoided.
Not completely: there would be some more millions for dubious development aid in hard-hit countries, matched by some very definite billions for the military. German armament build-up would conform to US demands. It would further modernize, not in manpower but in its ability to bomb and land anywhere in the world, to engage in battle, even street battle, and otherwise pursue asserted German needs for security and raw materials in Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or wherever.
The always charming, always pugnacious Minister for Defense, Ursula von der Leyen, was one of only two cabinet ministers – aside from Chancellor Angela Merkel – to retain their jobs. It was the problem of assigning Cabinet posts which almost stymied the agreement. There were reports, or rumors – that the negotiators spent much of that final all-night session shouting at each other or even sitting at length in angry silence before Merkel in the chair could calm the waves – or the breakers!
What made the deal finally possible was the willingness to cede to the Social Democrats six ministries, one more than before and more than their voting strength deserved, including the mighty Finance Ministry, an unexpected gain, and the prestigious Foreign Ministry. The little Bavarian CSU was recompensed for its final OK by getting the powerful Interior Ministry, responsible for the rapid increase in surveillance and check on terrorists “of the Left and the Right” for its beleaguered Bavarian leader, Seehofer. The CDU took the remaining five and of course Angela’s rule as chancellor.
But despite all the sweat, almost blood and possible tears which were invested, those NO GROKO rebels are still not satisfied and are still hoping not just to rock the boat but to swamp it. Their first target was party chairman Martin Schulz, who had made sure to grab that lofty job as Foreign Minister, while dropping claims to the party chairmanship. But it seems that no-one still loves this unlucky one-time Sir Galahad-type savior of the party. The protests at his self-appointment were so quick and widespread that, with the ink hardly dry, he stepped down – “in the interests of the party”. It looks as if Sigmar Gabriel, the man he got thrown out as party leader and now wanted to throw out as Foreign Minister, will get his revenge, while ambitious Manfred Schultz may land in some lesser job – or be put out to pasture. But even if the SPD leaders, with or without him, do win the referendum and remain part of the government, a century of past history has proved that election-time SPD promises of big future improvements must be taken with a hefty grain of salt, while its participation in German economic and military expansion will not be altered an iota.
Ring Around the Rosie can be a swell game for toddlers. But skulking in the shadows when politician circles jump up or fall down are now the grim figures of the AfD – Alternative for Germany. No, false; they are no longer in the shadows but have 92 seats in the Bundestag. If the coming referendum puts the SPD in a coalition government, the AfD will be the leading opposition party, with the right to make long rebuttal speeches to government statements in the Bundestag, get even more TV time than it has in recent years, and enjoy privileges hitherto held by the LINKE as biggest opposition party. Now, despite slight gains in the election, the LINKE will drop to last or second-to-last place in the seven-party ranking. That is the rock. And the hard place? It might still be a new election, when the AfD might win even more seats from voters angry at the month-long quarrels. And with neighboring Austria now headed by a coalition including just such a foreigner-hating near-fascist party, and similar dangers threatening in almost every other country in Europe (not to even mention the man in Washington), it makes some people like me think of that other great Yogi Berra line – “It’s like déjà vu all over again” – with none of the original laughs or smiles.
Above all, there is a desperate need for militant, active resistance by the working people of Germany, and elsewhere. Sadly, many in the LINKE party have been concerned, hardly less than in the CSU, CDU, Greens and SPD, with internal bickering and rivalry. Perhaps its congress in June can move past this and regain more of its proper, so urgently needed role as a fighting party.