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Merkel Should Avoid another Grand Coalition

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When Germans go to the polls on Sunday, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) should come away with a fourth win. The conservatives, made up of the CDU and the Christian Socialist Union, will likely form a coalition government with one or two other political parties to establish a majority, reported RealClearWorld (US).

The other major party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) led by Martin Schulz, is more than 10 points behind Merkel’s party and sits at a historic low in the polls. In addition to Merkel's conservative bloc and the SPD, a record four additional parties are projected to win over 5 percent of the vote and thus pass the threshold to hold seats in the Bundestag. The real suspense in this election, in fact, is over who will win third place. That party stands to either shape policy as partner to Chancellor Merkel or to be a thorn in her side while in the opposition.

In case of a repeat of the grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD, then the party that comes in third will wield the opposition bully pulpit. This is particularly problematic this time around, since the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) could very well win the coveted third position. The largest opposition party is given the opportunity to issue the first rebuttal on the parliament floor and is allotted a number of committee chairmanships. This would mean that if it leads the pack of smaller parties, and another grand coalition emerges, the AfD would be given a platform to speak first in response to the government and to chair the powerful budget committee.

To avoid giving the AfD potential prominence, Chancellor Merkel should encourage her voters to support with their second vote one of the mainstream smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats (FDP) or the Greens. Germans cast one vote for a local candidate and a second vote for a party -- seats are then allotted for both in the Bundestag. Instead of falling back into her comfort zone and leading a grand coalition, Merkel should try to partner with the FDP, the Greens, or both to form a government. The SPD is also keen for a spell in the opposition if it falls short of the votes needed to build a coalition. Opposition would help the SPD become a viable center-left party again.

Coalition politics
Before the era of Chancellor Merkel, the FDP and the Greens were considered natural kingmaker parties for the CDU and SPD. But during two of her three terms in office, Merkel has opted to lead Germany from the middle, which has squeezed out conventional coalition partners and driven some CDU and SPD supporters to back the extreme right, in the guise of the AfD, or the extreme left, in the form of the Left party. It has been comforting to have the two largest rival parties in Germany jointly confront significant challenges such as eurozone instability, the migration crisis, and Russian aggression. But in coalescing at the political center, they have forfeited their political identities. It is quite an irony that Germany introduced a minimum wage law and undid military conscription under a conservative chancellor, while on the other hand the Social Democrats were open to forging free trade deals with the United States and Canada.

The FDP and the Greens are not without fault in Merkel’s predicament -- neither party is reaching double digits in current polling, and thus neither stands to play the role of kingmaker. No longer known as environmental crusaders, the profile of the Greens has become muddled. Many of the Green party's supporters are high-income earners and live in urban areas, in contrast to the party's youthful and rebellious origins. Party leaders have also defied the pacifistic tendencies of many of their supporters and pushed for military action such as arming Kurdish rebels in the fight against the Islamic State. The party has also been muted in the face of Germany’s diesel scandal, and it watched Merkel co-opt a key Green cause when she pushed Germany to more quickly shed nuclear power. It has been over a decade since the Greens have been in power on a federal level, and there is a real danger that they will come in last after the ballots are counted.

The number one priority for the economically conservative and socially liberal FDP party is to get back into parliament. After serving as a junior party to the CDU for four years, the FDP was booted out of parliament in the 2013 election due to scandals and inexperienced leadership. The party should manage to re-enter the German parliament, but it might not be strong enough to serve as the sole junior partner to the CDU/CSU.

If the AfD continues its recent uptick in the polls and comes in third, Merkel should consider patching together a coalition with the FDP and Greens to diffuse the authority of the AfD in parliament. A coalition of three parties on the federal level would be a first for Germany. A so-called Jamaica configuration (the colors of that nation's flag are represented) of the Greens, FDP, and CDU/CSU would be unwieldy and at times full of contradictions. But a grand coalition faced with the AfD as the largest opposition party is a setup best avoided. Otherwise a party whose members have espoused shooting refugees at the border and shunning the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin might be in a position to take center stage as the voice of the opposition in Europe’s largest democracy.

Sudha David-Wilp is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States and is Deputy Director of GMF's Berlin office. The views expressed here are the author's own.

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