The last step in the formation of a new German government, which began with the election held on 22 September, was completed yesterday when Angela Merkel was sworn in for a third term as chancellor.
Once the coalition agreement negotiated between her Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats was approved by the Social Democrat membership, as it was overwhelmingly last week, parliamentary approval was a formality. The two parties hold a huge majority between them, and Merkel’s new government was approved by 462 votes to 150, with nine abstentions.
Even that is less impressive than it should have been. The two opposition parties, the Greens and the Left, have only 127 seats between them, so evidently a number of MPs from the new governing parties were indicating their dissatisfaction with the terms of coalition.
But the main sentiment is obviously relief that after just short of three months, the process is finally over. And all this for an outcome that was almost universally expected right from election night – one can only imagine how long it might have taken if there had been additional options to explore.
The Christian Democrats clearly retain the upper hand, with ten of the 16 cabinet positions, including the retention of Wolfgang Schäuble as finance minister. Peer Steinbrück, who was the Social Democrat candidate for chancellor, has not taken a ministerial position, but his party’s chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, is vice-chancellor and former parliamentary leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier is foreign minister.
The new government will be well worth watching. Clearly there is going to be some loosening of the German purse strings, but whether it will amount to a real rethinking of fiscal austerity or more to superficial modifications remains to be seen.
Political implications could be equally interesting. Each of Merkel’s previous two governments was a disaster for her junior coalition partners: the Social Democrats in 2009 and the Free Democrats this year both suffered a catastrophic loss of support. The Social Democrats will be approaching the next four years with some apprehension.
But for now, the new government is in an unassailable position. That’s a good thing for stability, but it’s less obviously a win for democracy. Bettina Marx at Deutsche Welle sounds an appropriate note of caution:
This is not good for democracy, which lives and breathes from the clash of ideas and policies. When most Germans support a grand coalition in opinion polls, this may be just a desire for harmony and consensus in the face of major challenges, or perhaps it means that German society today is less interested in politics. For a parliamentary democracy, however, this is the worst of all possible governments.