BERLIN — The big winner in the German election back in September appeared obvious: Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union had obtained an almost historic victory, finishing just five seats shy of an absolute majority in the multi-party system.
But while the coronations of Merkel in what was termed her decisive third term began, perhaps far too little attention was paid to the lack of those five seats, and to the election’s big losers, the Liberal Party, or the FDP, the expected coalition partner to the Union.
Because of the fall of the Liberals (parties without five percent of the national vote get zero seats in the German Parliament) Merkel’s party had to find a new party among what turned out to be only four in the new Bundestag. The choices were the Social Democrats, or SPD, the consistent challenger to the Union for national control, and two niche parties, the Greens (environmental leftists) and The Left (the post Communist party)
None were natural partners. In the coming months, the Union had talks with the SPD and the Greens (they didn’t bother with the commies). Now it appears a deal has been made to form a ruling coalition with the SPD. But what appeared to be total Union victory on election night looks far less total, and what was declared to be a devastating loss for the SPD appears far less chastising.
Because in the 63,000 word, 185 page coalition agreement, to get any partner at all, the Union had to cave in on core issues.
The big one: Against their strongly stated belief, they agreed to an SPD demand to create a minimum wage in Germany. The new wage will be 8.50 euro an hour, and will be fully in place by 2017. The Union had believed the lack of such a wage had been a primary advantage to the German economy, especially in the old east.
But the list doesn’t end there. A long held Union position against dual citizenship rights for the children of immigrants is gone. The Bavarian Christian Democrat demand for a road toll on non-German vehicles looks to be off the table. But an SPD demand that workers with 45 years of paying into the pension system can retire with full benefits as early as 63 is slated to become law.
The Union wanted to limit the requirement on clean energy (wind, solar, geo-thermal) to 50 to 55 percent of all energy by 2030. The SPD wanted 75 percent of all energy to be clean by then. The new agreement calls for as much as 60 percent. While that compromise is hardly a devastating loss, it hardly reflects the original notion of total victory for the Union.
And the list goes on. Even such a Union touchstone as keeping gay marriage off the books looks to have been abandoned, though the document only goes so far as to note that both sides of the coalition would work to make gay marriage happen, not that it would be made law.
Looking back two months, perhaps the mistake was in perception of the vote. While the Union was far and away the largest vote grabber among the four parties who made the Bundestag, the other three parties shared a leftist philosophy. That made the Union, really, the opposition party, at least in philosophy (the Greens and SPD would not even consider a coalition with the Left so practically, there was no chance of Merkel being ousted).
But this new coalition agreement shows that the Union had to give in far more than was suspected they would on election night, as without a natural partner, the others were able to be strong in their demands.
The 470,000 SPD members across Germany will vote Friday on whether or not to accept the deal. The larger, more powerful, Union, meanwhile, finds itself in the awkward position of having to sit back and hope their longtime rivals will sign off on a document that scuppers many Union dreams.
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