Farewell to Our Secret Love, the Grand Coalition
The basically botched start of the alliance between the CDU/CSU and the FDP has made the Grand Coalition look all the more successful, but it will not be returning any time soon. After all, the SPD has not really been a large party for some time. Three-way alliances seem more likely in the future: the CDU, the FDP, and the Greens here, the SPD, the Left Party, and the Greens there.
Out of a mixture of desperation, ambition, and statesmanlike responsibility, the Social Democrats joined the Grand Coalition as junior partners in 2005. Unsurprisingly, they were not rewarded for this decision in the 2009 elections: twenty-three percent of the vote was the result of a great deal of inconsistency.
After his courageous Hartz reforms, Gerhard Schröder waged a bizarre oppositional campaign against his own policies, which tugged the SPD to the left from its position in the new center. But this shift to the left brought no options for wielding power, and the Social Democrats were forced into a coalition with the party whose fictitious market radicalism had previously been their worst enemy.
But the Social Democrats were soon able to breathe a sigh of relief. The Grand Coalition quickly reached a consensus – not on continuing Schröder’s reform efforts, but rather on doing good deeds and refraining from spending cuts during the economic boom years of 2006 and 2007. Grumblings about the Grand Coalition were barely heard when the focus was on the unchecked expansion of the state; they grew louder when the coalitionists occasionally revealed their differences in opinion.
While many SPD traditionalists looked longingly to the Left Party and its even more shameless election pledges, its business wing grew moist-eyed upon hearing the speeches of the disciplined FDP guard gathered around Guido Westerwelle.
But a majority had positioned themselves comfortably between these two poles in Germany. When the “coalition of new possibilities” took up the reins of government, it had the people’s approval. A total of 60 percent of Germans were enthusiastic about the coalition. Merkel’s calculation had proven correct. The Christian Democrat leader stole the Social Democrats’ ideas and feel-good arguments without their provocative edges, while on the left side of the political spectrum, the former Socialist Unity Party presented its social conscience as a new core expertise to be marketed.
Secretly, the CDU has always been a Social Democratic party. Now, in the alliance with the SPD, it was able to live out its inclinations. One result was the largest tax hike in the history of the Federal Republic; another was the weakening of its business wing. And even when revenue rose sharply during the boom years, neither Steinbrück nor Merkel felt much like saving.
The Merkel/Steinmeier government* – or more accurately, the Merkel/Steinbrück government** – did an excellent job of managing the financial crisis. One unforgettable moment came when the chancellor and the finance minister, during an impromptu television address, guaranteed the safety of bank deposits in Germany without first obtaining parliamentary approval. Due in part to their action, there was never a bank run in Germany, and the population was able to sleep easy at night during a time of great economic turbulence. The once so nervous Germans were hardly fazed by the crisis.
In the area of foreign relations, the chancellor and her businesslike foreign minister worked together so harmoniously that the chroniclers of the Berlin Republic had to accept the fact that Merkel and Steinmeier would not lash out at each other during the 2009 election campaign. But as health care reform clearly showed, the two mainstream Social Democratic parties do indeed have different focuses, which resulted in an ungainly and relatively ineffectual compromise that must now be undone by Philipp Rösler (FDP).
* Frank-Walter Steinmeier, SPD, was Vice Chancellor of Germany (November 21, 2007-October 27, 2009) and Minister of Foreign Affairs (November 22, 2005-October 27, 2009) – trans.
** Peer Steinbrück, SPD, was Federal Minister of Finance (November 22, 2005-October 27, 2009) – trans.