Merkel's Pyrrhic victory: the end of the „conservative-bourgeois“ neoliberal model? Will the loss of the FDP tear Germany's conservative union of pragmatism and populism asunder?

Germany has gone to the polls and has given the Conservative alliance between Chancellor Merkel's CDU and Bavarian Prime Minister Seehofer's regional sister party CSU a whopping majority; but for the German right as a whole it is a Pyrrhic victory.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) celebrating her party's result at the federal elections on September 22, 2013, along with Herrmann Gröhe (CDU General Secretary) and Gerda Hasselfeldt (chief of the parliamentary group of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, CSU)

The electorate has in essence voted against the incumbent „black-yellow“ (i.e.Conservative-bourgeois) coalition and for a more left-leaning coalition, i.e. a „black-red“ coalition of Merkel's Conservative party with the Social Democrats (SPD) or a „black-green“ one, i.e. CDU/CSU with the Green Party (Grüne). Angela Merkel has triumphed, but is lacking the absolute majority of seats in the first chamber of parliament (the Bundestag); therefore, she has to move (even more) towards a middle position in the next term, and thus risk the break-up of the alliance with the more conservative CSU and the populist right wing in Germany. Failing that, a shadow government of „Red-Red-Green“, i.e. SPD, the Left Party („Die Linke“) and the Green Party, is waiting in the wings, in the middle or long term. Not only has she lost her „yellow,“ i.e. (neo-) liberal, coalitionpartner, but her majority in the Bundestag will be kept in check by a leftist majority in the Bundesrat (the second chamber of parliament, where the federal state governments are represented).

„People have voted for Merkel, not for her government“, German journalist Jakob Augstein wrote aptly (in Spiegel Online, 23-09-13). The chancellor, who has benefited from a strategy of accommodating many formerly Green (i.e. ecological) and Social democratic topics such as climate change (she was dubbed „Klimakanzlerin“), the switch from nuclear to renewable energies („Energiewende“), and a minimum wage („Mindestlohn“)) to her government's agenda, is paying dearly for her victory, by losing the favoured coalition partner, the FDP, which, more than the other parties, with the notable exception of the Left („die Linke“), stood for the neoliberal policies of the 2000s, and has now been punished for that. A (former) advocate of civil rights, the FDP couldn't make hay from the NSA scandal, given and the perception of the populace that followed from it, of Germany being a „surveillance state“, and „all that“ (as it has given up that civil-rights focus and ideologically tied itself to economic liberalism). By committing itself to „save“ the states hit by the euro crisis, albeit grudgingly and regrettably late, Merkel's CDU also triggered the advent of a new right-wing populist party, the „Alternative for Germany („Alternative für Deutschland“), which stands not so much for alternatives as as more for “Germany“, i.e. chauvinistic nationalism. Now, the chancellor, first, has to deal with a stronger-than-ever populist CSU (winning an absolute majority in Bavaria the week before) in her own camp; second, she has to compete but also cooperate with a party from across the aisle in the coalition now pending. Either with the Social Democrats, who disagree with her e.g. on European and social policies, or with the Greens, who disagree with her e.g. on energy and educational policies; third, she has to curtail the growth of an extreme-right, eurosceptical or nationalist-chauvinistic fringe, that could draw current voters away from her in the future.

It is both symptomatic and illuminating that in these times of growing political and socio-economic divisions—think of the widening income gap and the rise of the „precariate“ (e.g. people working in precarious, underpaid employment)—that the most radical, but socio-economically most credible of the three (and now four) small parties in Germany came out of the election strongest. The Left („Die Linke“) could connect to its clientele most powerfully and credibly by emphasizing these facts: on the watch of all other parties in government in the last two decades, the richest 1% of the population has become richer, despite (or due to?) the financial crisis, Lehman Brothers and „all that“, that the income gap has widened by 13% due to the stagnation of or even the decrease of the average wages, and that the states have become pawns in the „great games“ of the financial markets; thus, “die Linke” came in third. The SPD could only gain minimally; the party is still suffering from the neoliberal reforms that it pushed through under Chancellor Schröder in the early 2000s, a fact that is still neither forgotten nor forgiven by the party's left wing. It could not point out successfully enough, that Merkel profited from the effects of these reforms after 2005 and also in the 2009 elections, together with the neo-lib FDP. The loss of the leftists is not outweighed by the gain of some more moderate voters from the social-liberal-bourgeois camp.

The same is true even more for the Greens, who even significantly lost votes. The party that most clearly embodies the zeitgeist of those conservatives who are not so much bourgeois as genuine conservationists capable of social solidarity -, and whose ideas Merkel coopted for the right, could not profit from its opposition role. And this despite the government's erratic energy policies, aiming at replacing nuclear with renewable energy, but leading to the populace paying more, the big corporations paying less, and the energy companies enriching themselves immensely, despite several food scandals, e.g. tainted or wrongly-labelled meat, and „all that“. The Greens lost their clear political profile, as so often, due to jnternal struggles over strategies and directions; they scared the more bourgeois clientele of their potential voters with plans for tax hikes and several bans seen as inhibiting freedom. At the same time, they disappointed their more leftist clientele by almost wholly rubber-stamping the social cuts and austerity in the eurozone crisis states and by turning away from pacifism. Yet considering their tax hike plans, they are not crazy left-wing utopians, as the government propaganda made many believe, but would rather reinstate the level of taxes common in the era of chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU). There was also, surprise, surprise, a property or wealth tax back then, today derided as „socialist“. Does this mean Kohl was a socialist? No, but the zeitgeist of today seems more libertarian or egoistic than back then, less willing to show solidarity, despite the international debt crisis and „all that“. The bourgeois with vested financial and property interests and the social Darwinist above-average earners have decided this election in favour of the CDU, but have turned away from the FDP and thus have reduced the right-wing camp in the Bundestag to a one-party camp.

What will, thus, be the direction for Merkel's third-term government? Will the fall of the FDP mean that radical neoliberal ideas and market fundamentalism will (rightfully) be thrown onto the „ash heap of history“ (Trotzki) (at least in Germany)? The Conservatives will very likely not replace these ideas by taking on a cosmopolitan and tolerant internationalism, but will rather become more chauvinist and populist. It will be Merkel's challenge to conciliate those tendencies in a coalition with a party from the centre-left camp (very likely the SPD), that has the majority in the chamber of the federal states, the Bundesrat. There are two options. One is a return to a moderate and pragmatic style of governing in the dead centre of the political arena, with fewer neoliberal or nationalistic influences, as in the CDU-SPD “grand coalition” that governed 2005 to 2009 ; this would involve ignoring populist wrenches thrown into the works by the Bavarian CSU or even breaking the ties with that party—a scenario reminiscent of the conflict between Strauß (CSU) and Kohl (CDU) in the late 1970s. Such a coalition, without the staunchly right-wing CSU, could possibly convince the Greens to cooperate. This, though, inherently bears the danger of the break-up of the right-wing camp, the dissolution of the alliance with the CSU and the strengthening of the „Alternative für Deutschland“ (or maybe the revival of the FDP, as happened in 2009). If Merkel fails to convince her party (and/or the CSU) of the necessity of further rapprochement towards social democratic and Green ideas and positions, the break-up of either her Conservative party alliance (CDU/CSU, „Union“) or of the coalition is inevitable. The second option is to appease the right wing and the CSU by governing more staunchly bourgeois-conservative, but risking even more instability in the coalition with either SPD or Greens. Governing without the broad consent of the left coalition partner will be virtually impossible, given the leftist majority in the Bundesrat.
Overall, it is a very delicate situation for the chancellor, who celebrates a Pyrrhic victory, won at the FDP’s expense, that will make her completely dependent on the Social Democrats or the Greens (especially the former). Most likely, the pending legislative period in Germany will either be very stable—if she manages to stick to the first option described above—or there will be snap elections well before the end of the term—in in case she gives in and goes for the second option). If the first option materializes, the SPD will very likely lose further ground, as has happened the last time it governed with Merkel. In the case of a „black-green“ coalition, on the other hand, the Greens could soon face the fate of the FDP. In the case of a break-up of the coalition and snap elections, a whopping majority for the CDU, as last Sunday's, will be less likely. This last possibility remains as a ray of hope that, instead of a rubber-stamp government („Grand Coalition“) of CDU-SPD with an 80%-majority, the existing left majority of seats could be realized in government.

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