Months after being hailed by media as the new leader of the free world, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing the greatest political crisis of her 12 years in office. The breakdown of coalition talks leaves the country in a state of uncertainty, which many fear could provide an opening for the far right.
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Weeks of preliminary discussions about building a coalition of several political parties in Germany collapsed on Sunday night. The breakdown came after the head of the free-market liberal FDP left the talks, citing a lack of trust among the parties.
"We believed we were on a path where we could have reached an agreement," Merkel said addressing the press with her trademark cool composure.
She said she regretted the breakdown of the talks and pledged to lead the country through "a difficult time."
The parties involved — Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Green Party and the Free Democrats (FDP) — had high hopes for what they referred to as the Jamaica coalition, named for the parties’ colors, which match the Jamaican flag’s.
The failure signals a rocky path ahead for Merkel while raising the possibility that new elections will be held in 2018, in which the far right could make further gains.
What went wrong?
Considering their disparate policy positions, the coalition had formidable challenges to find common ground. The parties diverge significantly on energy and immigration policy and missed several self-imposed deadlines to reach agreements during discussions.
"It is better not to govern than to govern falsely," the head of the FDP, Christian Lindner, told reporters after leaving the negotiating table shortly before midnight on Sunday. In a statement released by his party, he cited irreconcilable differences and a lack of trust among the parties.
Lindner has already come under fire for what some critics are calling an ego-driven decision. Green Party lawmaker Reinhard Butikofer tweeted that Lindner "has chosen his own brand of populist agitation over political responsibility."
The options for Merkel now
Merkel's conservative block can choose to continue talks with the Greens to form a minority coalition, which she would lead.
Alternatively, Merkel could also attempt to court the second-biggest party, the SPD, to form a second consecutive grand coalition. However, the SPD is still reeling from unexpected losses in September's federal elections, and its acting head, Martin Schultz, reiterated on Sunday night that the party's role in the parliament will most certainly be in the opposition.
If coalition negotiations fail, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier may set in motion a complicated process to dissolve the current parliament and call fresh elections in 2018, with Merkel acting as interim chancellor.
Concerns about new elections
During a press conference after meeting with Merkel on Monday morning, Steinmeier seemed to downplay the possibility of holding new elections. Instead, he reminded parties of their responsibility to form a government, saying he expected "all parties to be ready to enter discussions." He called on his party, the SPD, to take one for Team Germany, as well as the CDU, CSU, Greens and FDP.
But there was one party that Steinmeier did not include in his call to action: the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. AfD is the first far-right party to enter government since the Nazi era, and all the other parties have pledged not to govern with it.
To the shock of many, AfD won 12.6 percent of the vote in September, making it the third-largest party in the new parliament. It won 27 percent of the vote in Saxony, making it the most popular party in the state.
Many are concerned that voters may be more skeptical of the establishment after these failed coalition negotiations, which could result in more votes for AfD.
Merkel told German broadcaster ARD on Monday that she was very "skeptical" about ruling with a minority government and said she would stand as a candidate again in 2018 if elections take place.