It was the most preposterous mic drop in German history. On Sunday night, after 56 days of four-party talks on forming a coalition government, the pro-business Free Democratic Party abruptly pulled out of the negotiations, effectively ending them.
Germany’s parliamentary democracy is a system with compromise in its DNA — so when Germans awoke to the news Monday morning, they were shocked. Such a failure is a challenge to Germany’s new role in the world. And it is yet another example of the dangerous political absolutism sweeping the world’s democracies.
In the national election of Sept. 24, six parties earned enough votes to get seated in the Bundestag — most notably, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, known as AfD. The Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, is the largest, but with just over 34 percent of the seats, it needs a robust coalition to form a majority government.
Since all parties reject joining a coalition with the AfD, there are only two possible combinations: another grand coalition between the center-left Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats — an option the Social Democrats have rejected after a major electoral defeat — or a four-party coalition of the Christian Democrats, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, the Greens and the Free Democrats (in Germany we call this the “Jamaica coalition,” because the parties’ colors mimic the green, yellow and black Jamaican flag).
The decision by Christian Lindner, the head of the Free Democrats, to withdraw leaves Germany with the following bad options: The German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, could still propose Ms. Merkel as chancellor to the Bundestag; he could then either ask her to form a minority government or to dissolve the Parliament and order new elections. Few people want new elections, which is why Mr. Steinmeier is urging the Free Democrats and Social Democrats to reconsider. “All parties involved should pause for a moment and reconsider their positions,” he said on Sunday. “Whoever runs in an election to claim political responsibility must not duck out when he holds it in his hands.” (On Monday, Ms. Merkel said new elections may be a better option.)
Germany’s fear of political instability goes deep. For many, the AfD’s entrance into the Bundestag brings to mind the dark shadow of the Weimar Republic, its disastrous collapse and all that followed. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has featured a series of German historians mining the parallels between the 1920s and ’30s and today: Back then, a divided political spectrum and a splintered left, with extremism on both sides, created a run of minority governments and a perception of political chaos, all of which made Nazi authoritarianism look like an attractive alternative.
Given all the obvious differences between then and now, one could shrug off the hand-wringing as historical trauma made obsolete by Germany’s political and constitutional reality. The federal republic is not Weimar; it is one of the world’s most stable political systems. There may be a few weeks of political chaos, but in the end, someone will be an adult and think twice. Or we will have new elections and deal out a new hand of cards. I am still convinced that the AfD, which won 12.6 percent of the votes in September, has pretty much exploited its electoral capacity.
But “we’re not Weimar” is not exactly comforting. Germany’s political system is based on the ability to compromise. All German governments since 1949 have been coalition governments and so far, they have always worked. The rise of populism has complicated all this, and not only in mathematical terms. Mr. Lindner’s decision also shows that the AfD has corrupted the ability to compromise in a more fundamental way. It has managed to discredit compromise as a core value of democracy.
On Monday, Germany was still speculating about Mr. Lindner’s reasons for ending the talks. Strategic questions may have played an important role. Mr. Lindner rebuilt the Free Democrats from scratch after the party got so few votes in 2013 that it was kicked out of the Bundestag. Maybe he felt it was simply too early to join a complicated liaison à quatre. But there’s an all-too-familiar brutality in the decision that is not just the consequence of Mr. Lindner’s cold, surgical intelligence.
When asked during a news conference on Monday afternoon why he dropped out of the talks, Mr. Lindner listed areas where the negotiations didn’t yield the results his party wanted. The other parties would agree only to a gradual elimination of the “Soli,” a tax on high incomes. The Free Democrats had also sought limits on immigration, but the Greens insisted on exceptions for humanitarian reasons. These are completely normal and necessary compromises — but the Free Democrats apparently feared that their voters would be told by the AfD that the party had sold them out for a chance to rule.
The sudden end of the talks is a huge blow to Germany’s global image as a stable, responsible power. Compared to what is at stake on the global level, the discussion on when to end the Soli looks tiny. But then it is exactly this, the disdain for what seem like petty concerns in the name of compromise, that has fed the rise of populism in the first place.
Mr. Lindner and others need the political courage not just to compromise, but to explain to the public why compromise is vital to German democracy.
The next weeks will show which is stronger in Germany: the fear of new elections or a minority government and all its Weimar overtones, or the new disgust for political compromise.
Anna Sauerbrey is an editor on the opinion page of the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel and a contributing opinion writer.