One reason that Germany is in this fix, with no immediately apparent path toward a parliamentary coalition, is that there is no other leader with Angela Merkel’s standing.
Angela Merkel is not going to resign as the Chancellor of Germany. “No, that’s not on the table,” she said, with a small, suppressed smile, when asked, by one of two interviewers for the German television broadcaster ZDF, if that prospect had, “in quiet moments,” occurred to her. She hasn’t had many quiet moments this weekend, a juncture at which her job, at least to observers, has never seemed more in danger—even if Merkel herself doesn’t see it that way.
Almost two months ago, her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian partner, the Christian Social Union, came in first place in the elections for Germany’s legislature, the Bundestag. But they didn’t have a majority: the C.D.U./C.S.U. coalition won just less than thirty-three per cent of the vote, giving them two hundred and forty-six seats out of seven hundred and nine. The Social Democrats, the traditional center-left party, meanwhile, suffered a historic collapse, winning only about twenty per cent, its poorest result since the days of the Weimar Republic. And, worse, in keeping with the Weimar theme, the far-right Alternative for Germany came in third, with more than eleven per cent of the vote and ninety-four Bundestag seats. A party so extreme hasn’t been in the Bundestag since the fall of the Third Reich. It is not an acceptable coalition partner, for Merkel or for anyone. The leaders of the Social Democrats didn’t want to form one, either, on the theory that their party had done so poorly because no one had any idea what it stood for anymore (it is, indeed, pretty hard to tell), and being a junior coalition partner wouldn’t help. The obvious alternative was for the C.D.U./C.S.U. to form a coalition with two even smaller parties, the Greens, who have an environmentally focussed progressive agenda, and the Free Democrats, who are business-friendly conservatives. The Germans called this the Jamaika Koalition, because the colors of the parties were, respectively, black, green, and yellow, like the Jamaican flag, and also because German television-news producers seemed to like illustrating long segments on politics with pictures of beaches and palm trees.
On Sunday night came the fall of Jamaika—or, as German press headlines put it, “Jamaica is over!” and “Jamaica—done.” After weeks of talks, and what Merkel, in interviews on Monday, said were dozens of pages of carefully worked-out agreements on everything from energy policy to kindergarten funding, the Free Democrats walked away from the negotiations. This means that Germany, technically, has only a caretaker government at the moment, and Merkel has only some narrow options. She could try to govern with a minority, cobbling together the votes she needs each time a bill comes up. (Under Germany’s rules, this is possible, though it has not been attempted in the postwar era.) She could call new elections, which wouldn’t happen until, perhaps, March. (“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Merkel said, indicating that new elections might be preferable to the first option.) She could try to keep negotiating, perhaps with the S.P.D.; Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s President, whose role is usually only a symbolic ratification of what the election winners work out, said on Monday that he would encourage this approach. He belongs to the S.P.D., and so he might have some influence there. Or Merkel could, in fact, resign, and make it all someone else’s problem. But whose? One reason that Germany is in this fix is that, after twelve years with Merkel in charge, there is no other obvious leader with her national, let alone international, standing. It is telling that one of the European concerns about the end of Jamaika is that no one but Merkel has the authority to get the Brexit talks done—until there is a settlement in Germany, those may be paralyzed, too.
Why did Jamaika fail? A few weeks ago, the Free Democrats did not seem like the ones most likely to blow up the negotiations—they seemed lucky to have returned to the Bundestag at all, after years of not winning a single seat, under the leadership of an ambitious young leader, Christian Lindner. (Germany has a form of a proportional representation system: a party either has to win a seat outright or get more than five per cent of the national popular vote.) The Greens and Merkel’s Bavarian partners seemed to be the farthest apart, ideologically—the C.S.U. is generally even more conservative than the C.D.U., and is under pressure from Alternative for Germany, which has siphoned off some of its voters. One of the last difficult issues in the negotiations was the Greens’ commitment to family reunification for war refugees who are legally settled in Germany, meaning that they might bring relatives over later. This is called, in German, Familiennachzug—President Donald Trump likes to call it chain migration, and it is a point of tension for populists throughout the West. And yet on Monday the head of the C.S.U. said he thought that the parties could have arrived at a compromise. Merkel, on ZDF, said she thought so, too.
“Did they just not want it?” one of the ZDF interviewers asked her, referring to the F.D.P. At that, Merkel shrugged slightly, and said that she was not going to judge other people’s motives. Lindner said that he had simply concluded that it “was better not to govern at all than to govern falsely.” Some of the German press coverage, though, has noted that Lindner’s aspirations—he comes across as a wannabe Emmanuel Macron of the center right—might have outrun both his party’s vote tally and its supposedly practical, corporate-friendly spirit. That would be less of a problem if the Alternative for Germany wasn’t waiting to take advantage of any vacuum. Julia Klöckner, who is one of the deputy heads of the C.D.U., tweeted that Lindner’s exit, which he had portrayed as a dramatic break, was instead an example of “well-prepared spontaneity.”
Merkel, too, portrayed the final break as a slow act of many hours. She is a deliberate woman, and knows planning, one assumes, when she sees it. She also went out of her way, in interviews with ZDF and ARD, another broadcaster, to praise the Greens. They hadn’t worked so closely together before, and were farther way to start with, “but we built trust,” she told ARD. “I learned a lot.”
And no, she wouldn’t resign. “When people asked me, on the campaign trail, if I was ready to serve Germany for four more years, I always said that I was,” Merkel said. “I see no reason to go back on that promise.” Her party seems to be behind her, for now. Asked if she would resign if it were the S.P.D.’s condition for entering a coalition, she said, in a roundabout way, that blackmail wasn’t healthy for democracies. (So, no.)
She was sorry about Jamaika, she said. “We could have gotten a lot done.” But she was calm, and seemed willing, for the moment, to wait. When one of the two ZDF interviewers asked if she was afraid of what new elections might bring, she said, “I’m not actually afraid of anything.”
When the other interviewer asked about reports that Macron had “telephoned” her, she said, “there was an exchange, but it wasn’t by phone.”
“Video conference?” the interviewer said.
“S.M.S.?” his colleague offered.
“Something digital and modern!” the first one said.
Merkel smiled, and, though she described Macron’s well wishes, she never gave the answer away—or her exact destination, after leaving Jamaica.