BERLIN — This week, top officials from Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union and the Greens finally found something they could agree on wholeheartedly. They condemned Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), for pulling out of coalition talks with them and allegedly throwing Germany’s political system into chaos.
Some said that Lindner had selfishly and recklessly killed an imminent agreement. Others suggested he was a coward who lacked the courage to go all the way. Still others called him a populist and a cold-hearted opportunist. But arguably, Lindner’s decision to walk away was not only courageous; it was healthy for German democracy.
Lindner — 38 years old, boyish-looking and, at times, a little too eloquent for his own good — presides over a party that isn’t particularly popular with most voters. Over the past decades, the FDP has damaged its own reputation by frequently switching its allegiances. Moreover, a majority of Germans are wary of the brand of liberalism that Lindner represents. They believe that economic liberals are, by definition, lobbyists for business elites — and they judge the party’s actions accordingly.
Lindner’s decision to pull out suggests that the self-correcting mechanisms of democracy are kicking in.
Even so, Lindner’s surprise decision to walk away deserves to be examined on its own merits. The coalition negotiations have hardly been harmonious, after all. Following elections on September 24, the four parties only reluctantly agreed to negotiate. They wasted three precious weeks before entering exploratory talks. And when they finally did talk, they struggled mightily. Daily media updates documenting the lack of progress did their bit to disrupt the process. Even voters who initially welcomed the so-called Jamaica talks soon cooled on the exotic idea. And rightly so.
In the current political climate, a government bringing together such different animals as traditional conservatives, left-leaning environmentalists and free-market liberals was never going to be a safe bet. The parties clashed on taxation, agricultural policy, climate change and pretty much everything else. Migration turned out to be the most contentious issue, with the CSU and the Greens at odds over the issue of family reunifications of refugees. (Lindner’s FDP sided with the Bavarian conservatives on that one.)
Up until the end, working documents were dotted with square brackets, indicating that agreements on key issues had not been reached. News junkies who followed the minute-by-minute reporting trusted (wrongly, it turned out) that the coalition partners would eventually get their act together. But most of them were also highly skeptical that such a motley crew would last for an entire four years.
It was first and foremost in Angela Merkel’s interest to overcome obstacles and make the thing fly. The German chancellor has become the reigning world champion in running coalition governments. She excelled at bringing about the kind of hard-won compromises struck in late night meetings that power-sharing requires — and flourished at the expense of her coalition partners. Running a supremely complex government called Jamaica would have been Merkel’s magnum opus, a crowning achievement.
The other players, on the other hand, had less to gain. They wanted the power and the glory and the ministries, of course. But the political differences on key issues were such that each party had to bend over backwards to compromise. A Jamaica coalition, no matter what, would have been a tough sell to the most loyal voters.
So why did the parties keep talking anyway? The one thing that bound them together was the fear of right-wing populism. Everyone agreed, for some reason, that new elections would fuel the rise of the Alternative for Germany — and had to be avoided at all costs.
Rise of the right
There are, of course, sound reasons to condemn many of the things that AfD officials have said and done. But the AfD isn’t the only right-wing party in a European parliament — and containing populists should not be the sole raison d’être of a German government. As Europe’s most powerful economy, Germany has a responsibility to provide some leadership on issues ranging from the environment to defense to fiscal policy, and it’s doubtful that a struggling Jamaica coalition would have done that.
But let’s just assume for the sake of argument that the most important challenge facing Germany in coming years is indeed coping with the AfD. Even then, the assumption that new elections are harmful can be challenged. Populist parties such as the AfD thrive on the perception that the political elites are colluding in an effort to stifle them. A Jamaica coalition would have been a perfect example.
The co-leaders of the parliamentary group of the far-right Alternative for Germany, Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, make a statement on November 20, 2017 in Berlin after coalition talks failed | John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images
Lindner’s decision to pull out, on the other hand, suggests that the self-correcting mechanisms of democracy are kicking in. True, a fair amount of political stability — prioritized by Merkel in recent years — is essential to a functioning system. But in times of change, democracy also needs debate and dissent. Today’s Germany is nothing like the Weimar Republic; following years of political and economic stability, the country can cope with a little uncertainty.
When Lindner addressed reporters on Sunday night he said that “it’s better to not govern than to govern wrongly.” In the past, the FDP has often been accused of selling out for the sake of power. This time, they certainly didn’t. Lindner’s move is a leap into the unknown, and it’s far from certain that his party will benefit. (Surveys show that a majority of voters do not support the FDP’s decision to walk away.) But it befits a party that has the word “free” in its name to take a risk. Claims that the FDP has acted opportunistically — just because it has done so in the past — are wide of the mark.
Konstantin Richter is a contributing writer at POLITICO. He is the author of the German-language novel, “The Chancellor: A Fiction,” about Angela Merkel and the refugee crisis.