Angela’s Merkel government of losers

HAMBURG — This is a first in the history of electoral politics: The biggest losers have ended up as the German government’s de facto leaders.

The Social Democrats were humiliated in the September contest. And yet Angela Merkel, whose Christian Democrats came out way ahead, gave away the most critical Cabinet posts to the diminutive SPD — anything to stay in power as Germany’s fourth-term chancellor. The mass-circulation Bild jeered: “Merkel gives away the government to the SPD!”

Merkel has yielded critical levers in order to buy herself another four years in the country’s top office. Now these SPD politicos, most of whom are relatively unknown outside Berlin, will be the ones to shape the politics of Europe and Germany, the EU’s mightiest member, in the years to come.

Olaf Scholz, the governor of the city-state of Hamburg, has been tapped for the finance ministry. Say goodbye to Wolfgang Schäuble, who labored hard to impose financial discipline and market reforms on the eurozone over the last 12 years. The Social Democrats want to move closer to France’s Emmanuel Macron: They like the idea of a vastly expanded EU budget; they favor a European finance minister who will be able to disburse billions to prop up deficit-ridden “Club Med” members like Italy and Greece. The party’s lodestar is redistribution on a continental scale, something tight-fisted Schäuble fought throughout his career.

Then there is Eva Högl, who is in line to head the labor and welfare department. She will have almost €140 billion to disburse and first dibs in shaping labor market legislation. Expect more regulations that will constrain flexibility, like an end to short-term contracts and more difficult hiring and firing.

It was a popular vote of no-confidence. The fact that these same losers are now forming a new government sounds like a cosmic joke.

The SPD will also mold legislation on domestic security and anti-terror policy, if Heiko Maas gets the justice ministry as expected. And then, of course, there’s Martin Schulz — the former president of the European Parliament who last held elective office as mayor of the backwater of Würselen — who was going to head the foreign office until he announced Friday that he wasn’t going to because of party infighting.

True, foreign ministers don’t really make foreign policy. That power is lodged in the White House, the Kremlin and the Elysée. But whoever replaces Schulz will have to heed his comrades, who have advocated moving away from the mainstays of German diplomacy.

The SPD doesn’t like the Russia sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea, and wants to make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The party is loath to raise the German defense budget to 2 percent of GDP. It wants to go easy on Iran sanctions, and detests Trump’s America more than is necessary. The Social Democrats’ vision of the EU is a social welfare empire from Portugal to Poland that will gestate into the “United States of Europe” by 2025.

Whether all this comes to pass will, of course, hinge on whether the SPD rank-and-file blesses the Grand Coalition 3.0 by individual ballot. But it is a safe bet that they will. And why wouldn’t they? Though headed by a Christian Democrat, the government’s coloration will be “red,” the traditional color of the democratic left.

Look beyond the coalition deal and the haggling over Cabinet posts and it’s clear that the country — still the linchpin of the European order — will be a run by a government of losers.

It is even odds that Merkel will not last out her term.

Last September, Merkel’s conservative alliance shed almost 9 percentage points compared to 2012. Crashing down to 20 percent, the SPD lost 5 percentage points. The most recent poll gave the party, which once scored in the mid-forties, only 17 percent support. Added up, this means that Merkel’s grand coalition was decimated in September, its losses totaling almost 14 percentage points.

It was a popular vote of no-confidence. The fact that these same losers are now forming a new government sounds like a cosmic joke.

Schulz best embodies the “Peter Principle,” which decrees that everybody will be promoted to the level of his own incompetence. A respected president of the European Parliament, he went for the SPD chairmanship and dragged the party down to its lowest take since the birth of the Federal Republic.

Bavaria’s strongman, CSU chief Horst Seehofer, is sitting pretty too, despite being toppled by revolt at home. He will be replaced as the state’s prime minister, but will now run the interior ministry in Berlin.

Merkel, once touted as “empress of Europe,” wins this race of the losers. This masterful politico, who has outmaneuvered every potential contender for 12 years, could only hang on to power by practically giving away the government to her weakened junior partner.

Thus are the high and mighty laid low, and the lame will lead the lame in the government to come.

The only consolation for this government of losers, is that — apart from Paris — other European capitals aren’t faring much better.

In London, the prime minister is sinking. Spain is being torn asunder by secessionism. Italy is in thrall to caretaker governments and elections are likely to only bring more instability. And now Germany, the rock of the ages? It is even odds that Merkel will not last out her term.

Josef Joffe is a member of the editorial council of Die Zeit in Hamburg and a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

Original Article

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