Τετάρτη, 4 Μαΐου 2016

Europe’s grand coalitions have allowed extremes to prosper


1/5/2016

The German Social Democrats are paying a heavy price for joining Merkel’s government

By Wolfgang Münchau

On paper it might look good: traditional opponents come together in the national interest to form a government with a big majority, providing stability and enabling the pursuit of difficult, yet necessary reforms. In fact it is a disaster, as the experience of several European countries shows.

Take Austria: in the first round of presidential elections earlier this month voters delivered a stinging blow to the country’s two main parties — the Social Democrats and the centre-right People’s party, which together make up the governing coalition — and handed victory to the candidates of the far right Freedom party (FPÖ) and the Green party. The voters are in open rebellion against what we in Europe call grand coalition.

We called such alliances between the main centre-right and centre-left parties “grand” for a simple reason. Together, they used to have majorities of 80 per cent or more. But their majorities have been dwindling and in some cases disappearing. In Austria that just happened. In Germany, a recent poll put Angela Merkel’s governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats on a combined 50.5 per cent. That is still a narrow majority, but one the two are at risk of losing in the general election in 2017.

Germany may not be quite where Austria is today, but the trend is troubling and the implications for Europe are terrible. The trend is fuelled by a combination of low growth, recurring financial crises and a rise in immigration. The political consequence is to drive the two participants towards the centre ground.

Ms Merkel is the most centrist CDU leader ever. Her positions on the refugee crisis and nuclear energy differ little from those of the SPD and the Greens. The Social Democrats have also moved towards the centre. The party accepts the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the US and the EU. In the eurozone crisis it supported Ms Merkel’s veto of joint European debt instruments and deposit insurance. Read the programmes of the two parties and you find subtle differences on social and economic policies; in practice, the two are indistinguishable.

Critics of grand coalitions predicted what is now happening. The short-sighted party strategists ignored their warning. Every time Germany’s two main parties have formed a grand coalition, they have ended up strengthening the extremes. The grand coalition from 1966-69 boosted the NPD, an ultra-right party. It also gave rise to an extreme leftist movement, out of which the Baader-Meinhof terrorist network emerged. The 2005-09 grand coalition led to a surge in support for the Left party and the Green party. The main beneficiary of the current grand coalition, which took office in 2013, is the Alternative für Deutschland, the rightwing anti-immigration party. Its support has risen from 4.7 to 13.5 per cent, according a recent opinion poll.

The reason Germany ended up with a grand coalition is because the two main parties categorically rejected deals with extremist groups. That left the grand coalition as the only arithmetically feasible constellation able to command a majority. The SPD still rejects a coalition with the Left party at national level. The CDU rules out governing with the AfD. That leaves the four centrist parties — the two coalition partners plus the smaller Greens and the liberal Free Democrats — as the only available candidates for government. The AfD has a good chance of becoming the largest opposition party after the 2017 election.

Of the two coalition partners, the SPD’s decline is the most dramatic. Germany’s oldest political party has fallen to 19.5 per cent in the polls — compared to 40.9 per cent in the 1998 elections. Entering a grand coalition as junior partner allowed the SPD to punch above its weight. Joining Ms Merkel’s government seemed the pragmatic thing to do. Now the party is paying a heavy price.

Its leadership clings to the view that it can only win elections from the centre. That worked for previous SPD leaders — Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s and Gerhard Schröder either side of the millennium. But this is no longer true when your coalition partner already occupies the centre ground. The smart strategy for the party would be to appoint a leader of the left, somebody who is ready to forgo ministerial limousines.

The Christian Democrats, meanwhile, are destined to govern again unless there is a further dramatic decline in support. If there were another grand coalition after the elections, Ms Merkel may well lead it; it would be her fourth term. Many would celebrate this as a pragmatic choice. But it would, in my view, be the worst conceivable outcome because it would pave the AfD’s path to absolute power some time in the next decade. In Austria, the FPÖ may already be there in two years’ time.

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