Thu Jun 17th, 2010 at 06:22:06 AM EST
Since my Merkel Above All diary and the sudden presentation of a massive budget cut package, the German federal government sank into a much deeper crisis. In opinion polls, disapproval with the performance of the conservative-(neo)liberal government rose to 86%, and only 23% think that sustaining the current government coalition would be the best for the country. Satisfaction with the work of chancellor Angela Merkel herself is diving like BP shares:
Over the last week, the media was abuzz with wild speculation about possible government changes: a replacement of Merkel as chancellor, or her party replacing the neolib FDP with the Social Democrats (SPD) as coalition partners, or new elections. None of these is realistic at the moment, so I didn't plan an update until the next potential crisis for the government: the election of Germany's next figurehead Federal President, which many a disaffected member of the conservative-liberal majority might choose as occasion to rebel against party discipline by voting for the SPD's popular candidate.
However, a recent discussion indicated that one element of the government's doldrums I omitted in the Merkel diary has significance. That Merkel got rid of all pretenders to her throne and ended the FDP's tax cut amok run doesn't mean that the government is now all yes-men. Instead, there is disarray, because there is still strife and there are attacks, in particular from the direction of the other junior coalition partner: the Bavarian CSU.
The wild hog
Germany is a federal country, which is also reflected on the party landscape. In particular, the centre-right consists of Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), which is present in 15 of the 16 states, and Bavaria's Christian Socialists (CSU), currently led by former healthcare minister and party left-winger Horst Seehofer (also PM of Bavaria).
Some key differences: the CSU is more social conservative, it has a strong Eurosceptic streak, it does dare to use unveiled Germany-first and Bavaria-first rhetoric when it comes to money, and, as the name implies, it professes to protect the common people. At federal level, both in the lower (Bundestag) and upper (Bundesrat) houses of parliament (the latter consists of representatives of the state governments), the CSU has regular bouts of rebelliousness, when it tries to demonstrate its independence by playing opposition within the government (or within the joint CDU/CSU parliamentary faction when it is in opposition).
Seehofer started one of these bouts already before the elections, which escalated into an amok run by the time of the Greek crisis. And it was about the CSU's social profile. On one hand, when Seehofer took over the CSU from a neolib predecessor, he kept tax cut plans aimed at middle and lower classes, believing that that is a social measure and a good compromise policy for the coming coalition with the FDP. On the other hand, he wanted to play himself up as the protector of the small people from the big bad wolfs of the FDP. The result was a schizophrenic course in which the FDP was both to be an ally against the CDU for tax cuts and an enemy on everything else.
Seehofer kept attacking both FDP and CDU during the intra-government tax cut debate and the simultaneous dive in the polls. Then came the Greek crisis and the Euro crisis, which gave occasion for more populist posturing, using the CSU's nationalist and Eurosceptic lines too. Seehofer demanded that if money is given to failing Eurozone members at all, it shouldn't be given for free and shouldn't benefit financial institutions only, and later condensed this into three demands for Bavaria's consent for the Euro stability package in the Bundesrat:
- democratic control over the spending of German money: allowing any EU member state to tap into the fund shall be conditional on the approval of the budget committee of the Bundestag;
- the failed Growth and Stability Pact should be overhauled, to include automatic punishments and a loss of voting rights in the Council;
- a tax on financial transfers should be introduced.
The first two proposals were just insane. When push came to shove, that is the Bundesrat
's vote on the Euro package on 25 May, seeing that his blackmail came to naught, Seehofer folded. As for the tax on financial transfers, that was good for another war between the coalition partners: despite a general coalition agreement on supporting the idea, finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) as well as the FDP kept questioning its merit in public.
In the context of the budget cuts, it should be noted that Seehofer's predecessor achieved and required a balanced budget for Bavaria four years ago -- but last month, with many ministers unwilling to cut, the CSU faction leader in the Bavarian parliament proposed that the balanced budget be voided temporarily...
Meanwhile, after the CDU's high losses in the Northrhine-Westphalia regional elections (and the consequent loss of upper house CDU/CSU-FDP majority), Merkel shelved the tax cut plans, and the demoralised FDP acquiesced in the decision -- leaving the CSU all alone. The irate Seehofer intensified his attacks against the FDP. He put the blame on them for the government's problems, and made a last stand on another (social) issue: he chose total opposition on the FDP health minister's healthcare reform plans.
The battle with the FDP intensified into a trading of insults. An FDP state secretary in the health ministry said that "the CSU acts like a wild hog, it showcased only destructiveness". In response, the CSU's party secretary described the attack as a venting of frustrations indicating lack of political maturity, then added his own frustrated immaturity: "They are evolving into a healthcare policy cucumber troops: first they play badly, then they mouth off". ("Cucumber troops" is a term from football for a band of amateurish losers.)
It was at this point that the chancellor broke her silence, and admonished the two coalition partners. However, by that time, criticism of Merkel for lack of leadership was loud in the party and the media. On the other hand, in an interview on the sparring in the coalition, Elmar Brok, the influential CDU MEP and onetime member of the now defunct Merkel-rivalling Andenpakt power block, defended the chancellor, saying that "leaders need people ready to lead, if people are just running to get into the media with expletives, anyone who has to lead will have difficulties".
The wild speculations
Such a war of words of course raises doubts about the survival of a government. But none of the versions discussed by German media in the last week seem realistic.
The wild youth
- Replacement of the chancellor: who would be the replacement? Merkel just neutralised her last serious rival by sending him into the race for figurehead Federal President.
- The CDU/CSU ditches the FDP and invites the SPD to form another Grand Coalition: this may look attractive to many voters and Merkel, but not to the SPD, which indeed dismissed the rumours.
- Snap elections after a failure of government majority: this again would fail both on the FDP and the SPD. The FDP is currently skirting the 5% limit in the polls, causing new elections by blowing up the government would be suicide for them. As for the SPD, as polls and the federal SPD's relations with the Left Party stand now, the only way they could get into a government would be in a Grand Coalition, and that as a shrunk junior partner. The SPD would rather wait for the government's crisis to last a little longer so that its poll numbers improve more.
There was reportedly one more personal conflict in the government: one concerning its defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU).
In the same poll which I quoted above the fold, Guttenberg leads the politicians' job approval list with 68%. This is rather weird when you consider that a similar majority of German citizens rejects a key policy he is currently responsible for, the German part in NATO's Afghanistan mission. Apparently, being a good-looking aristocrat and the government's second-youngest member (at 38) was enough to fool most people.
Guttenberg also has some talents: the talent of brazening it out. In the scandal of the bombing of stolen fuel tankers with many civilian deaths in Afghanistan and its cover-up, which led to the resignation of Guttenberg's predecessor, Guttenberg blamed everything on subordinates whom he fired for not informing him, and kept denying while those subordinates contradicted him.
Now a Sunday paper reported that Guttenberg told friends that he is thinking about resigning. The reason: the chancellors' office allegedly prepared a legal opinion saying that it would be legal for the parliamentary commission on the fuel tanker bombing to order a confrontation of witnesses between Guttenberg and the two fired top soldiers.
Guttenberg denied the rumours, but is causing another intra-government (even intra-CSU) conflict: as part of the budget cuts, he called for an end to conscription (potential savings are supposed to be 400 million). He earned approval from the FDP, but rejection from his own comrades and Merkel.
Personally, I don't see the end of Germany's current federal government in the near future, even if Merkel's candidate for Federal President fails. But the government is certainly in disarray, with warring factions, and no consistent policymaking will come out of this. Which, given the direction these people would want to take us, might even be for the better of the EU and Germany...