New year with "old" government?
2017 has been a turbulent year for German politics, taking its peak in the federal elections in September: The demise of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), the comeback of the Liberals (FDP) and the ascent of the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have altered the German party system dramatically. As a result, gathering majorities has become more difficult and so has the process of building a government. However, the change of the German political landscape not only affects future policy making but clearly also has an impact on public affairs work. But let us first take a look back.
Recap of the political year 2017
The year started with a phenomenon that seems like a distant memory now: the hype around SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schulz. Shortly after the appointment of the former EU President as chancellor candidate, the party´s approval rates skyrocketed – even overtaking the CDU/CSU. But the hype did not last and before long Schulz crashed down. After the loss of three state elections in a row, the SPD ended up receiving only 20.5 percent at the federal elections in September, its worst result since 1949.
However, the SPD was not the only party to suffer great losses: The biggest party CDU/CSU also struggled. Angela Merkel, until then viewed as a beacon of political stability by many, lost her nimbus when conservative voters delivered her a bitter warning over the centrist course of the CDU/CSU in recent years. Many feel this particularly reflected her political response to the refugee crises which left many conservatives estranged from the Christian Democratic Union.
Speaking of the refugee crises: not only did it harm Angela Merkel, but it also saved the right-wing populist AfD from obscurity and catapulted the party into the limelight with 12.6 percent of the vote into the German Bundestag where it will stay for the next four years – much to the displeasure of the other parties. However, shortly after the election, the party -quickly displayed its taste for drama when former leading figure Frauke Petry left the Parliamentary group in a surprising move, leaving her former colleagues fuming with rage.
After the election, the following picture evolved: After its brutal loss, the SPD immediately ruled out a continuation of a coalition with the CDU/CSU. This in turn coerced the FDP, the Greens and the CDU/CSU into negotiations over a so-called “Jamaica” coalition. The talks started with great hopes, only to be abruptly ended after several weeks by the FDP. As a result of the collapse, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Federal President, urged the SPD to come to the negotiation table in order to avoid snap elections and assume responsibility for the country. After initial reservations, the Social Democrats now started into exploratory talks over another coalition with Angela Merkel´s CDU/CSU.
When will the next government stand?
As it looks now, the government building process could stretch out until late spring 2018. If both parties are not willing to cooperate for a fourth time, snap elections in April could be possible. All other alternatives such as a minority government have been ruled out by Angela Merkel.
Although most observers expect both parties to finally agree on a coalition treaty, a continuation of the alliance is not a sure bet. Both parties are looking to sharpen their profile and the SPD is at risk of losing the trust of its voters completely if the party does not deliver big wins in the negotiations. On the other hand, the CSU is afraid of greater losses (including their absolute majority) in the state elections in Bavaria in autumn this year if they step back from their claims too far.
Aside from these individual sensitivities, there is also a wide gap between the parties with regards to detailed policy proposals. Interestingly, health topics could become a crucial point in coalition talks, with the SPD’s concept of a “Bürgerversicherung” – a major system overhaul of the general financing of the German healthcare system –being heavily attacked by CDU/CSU in public and declared as a ‘no go’. However, after the beginning of the exploratory talks, the public positioning by CDU, CSU and SPD has ceased, certainly also as a lesson learnt from the failed Jamaica talks.
What does it mean for public affairs business?
So, what does this situation imply for the business of public affairs and interest representation? First and foremost, there will be not much input to expect from the ministries until both parties have agreed on a common line and have built a government. As for the Bundestag, MPs do not seem to want to wait until the government has been formed before they take up their work. However, legislative initiatives cannot be expected due to the pending exploratory talks between CDU/CSU and SPD with the majority of MPs attached to these two biggest Parliamentary groups potentially soon engaged in the coalition negotiations. Still, this is obviously a good time for agenda-setting work to prepare grounds for future activities in the remaining three years of policy making in this legislative term.
To sum it up, the political developments of 2017 have shown us a German policy landscape that is changing. Former mass parties are losing influence and smaller parties are gaining power. In any case, German politics has become more pluralist – and public affairs businesses needs to adapt to this.
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