Germany under chancellor Angela Merkel was meant to be the bastion of the neoliberal centre in Europe.
Britain might vote to leave the European Union. France might see the Nazi Front National win second place in the presidential elections.
And right wing authoritarianism might spread in central Europe, but Germany would hold firm.
But the antics over the formation of a new German government have shattered this story. In last September’s federal elections the outgoing grand coalition was humiliated. It consisted of the conservative CDU/CSU bloc and the Labour-type SPD.
They have dominated the German Federal Republic since it was founded in 1949. But between them they won just 53.5 percent of the vote, down from over 67 percent in 2013.
The far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) broke into the federal parliament for the first time with 12.6 percent.
The SPD leader Martin Schulz announced that they would go into opposition, leaving Merkel to engage in tortuous negotiations with smaller parties. But when these collapsed, she was able to lure the SPD back into talks.
Finally last week an agreement was reached. It looked like a good deal for the SPD which got six ministries, including finance, foreign affairs, and labour. The SPD also won concessions about how to spend the mammoth £46 billion budget surplus the German government has accumulated thanks to nearly a decade of austerity and an export boom.
The new grand coalition will increase spending on pensions, schools, infrastructure, and high-speed broadband—all SPD goals.
But the deal succeeded in infuriating everyone. The conservative right wing—especially the Bavarian-based CSU—are angry about the concessions to the SPD. Many of them already blamed Merkel for the election result.
They argue she opened a space on the right for the AfD to fill by governing from the centre. The head of the German equivalent of the CBI complained the coalition agreement was “skewed towards wealth redistribution, instead of future-proofing the German economy”.
This proved to be nothing compared to the row in the SPD. Schulz, an over-promoted mediocrity, was also already under fire.
The party’s youth wing in particular has attacked him for going back on his pledge to stay in opposition and rebuild the SPD’s base.
Last week he broke another promise, not to join the government, by announcing that he would take the foreign ministry. Sigmar Gabriel, the outgoing foreign minister and ex-SPD leader, publicly complained that “the new SPD leadership clearly didn’t care a hoot about this public appreciation of my work”.
So great was the anger at Schulz’s broken promise that on Friday of last week he announced that he wouldn’t join the government after all.
He had already said he would stand down as party chairman, so he’s history. But the SPD isn’t out of the woods yet.
The result of a referendum of party members on whether to join the Grand Coalition will be announced on 4 March. Meanwhile, the SPD continues to drop in the polls. One last week placed it at 17 percent, while the AfD is up to 15 percent.
This is a terrifying figure—the historic bastion of European social democracy running only two percentage points ahead of a far right party founded by a bunch of Ukip-type racists. It also includes Nazis.
And Merkel is under pressure. The right wing Bild tabloid accused her of hanging onto the chancellorship “at any price”. And Kurt Kister, editor of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, said, “This government could be captioned ‘Won’t last long’.”
But if the grand coalition can’t hang on too long, what will follow it? Will the AfD pull the whole German political spectrum rightwards? Can the left wing Die Linke party offer a focus for resistance?
This would require combining firm opposition to austerity with principled anti-racism and solidarity with migrants.
The anti-racist demonstrations across Europe on 17 March will be an important test for this alternative.