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Germany's grand coalition on the rocks

Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Angela Merkel (18 December 2008)
The SPD-CDU marriage has proved more harmonious than had been expected

By Steven Rosenberg
BBC News, Berlin

Some marriages are made in heaven. But Germany's "grand coalition" was a marriage born of the ballot box.

After an inconclusive federal election in 2005, neither the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) nor the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) had enough votes to form a government without the other.

So, at the altar of German politics, the country's most bitter political rivals had little choice but to pronounce the words: "I do" (while secretly thinking: "We don't really want to, but we've got no choice").

The "marriage contract" paved the way for the CDU's Angela Merkel to become chancellor, but gave the bulk of cabinet posts to the SPD.

I think they haven't achieved anything, except that they've managed to stay together
Alan Posner, Die Welt

There was little optimism surrounding the partnership.

At the time, critics dismissed it as a "marriage of elephants", predicting that the rival parties would lock trunks for the next four years, paralysing the whole system of government.

"It was a marriage of losers," Alan Posner from the newspaper, Die Welt, complains. "I think they haven't achieved anything. Except that they've managed to stay together."

Odd-ball couple

It is certainly true that the political partnership has not produced many grand reforms.

But the marriage has proved more harmonious than had been expected.

Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier on board a private jet (23 November 2005)
There was little optimism surrounding the partnership when it began in 2005

There has been surprisingly little infighting and that has gone down well with the German public.

"Germans have this tendency to be slightly in favour of a great majority," says Jan Techau, a political analyst.

"They like the idea of not too much bickering, of binding everybody into a great compromise. It has an intrinsic kind of appeal."

But the "grand compromise" of 2005 is coming under pressure.

The odd-ball couple of German politics is now experiencing the three-year itch.

With Germany gearing up for fresh federal elections this autumn, cracks have emerged inside the grand coalition.

Both sides have indicated they want out.

After September's election, the CDU (and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) would prefer a coalition with the pro-business, liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The SPD is looking to pair up with the Green Party.

Economic crisis

But something strange is happening.

As keen as they are to split, the grand coalition partners have suddenly been forced to appear far more united than they really are.

DAX stock exchange (14 January 2009)
In a situation like this, the general public wants government to function
Ralf Neukirchen, Der Spiegel

That is a result of the economic crisis.

Germany is facing its worst recession for 60 years: the German public expects its government to pull together, not tear itself apart.

So Chancellor Merkel and the Social Democrat Vice-Chancellor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have been putting on a united front to help the government fight the downturn.

This week, the government adopted a second economic stimulus package worth 50bn euros (46bn; $66bn).

"In a situation like this, the general public wants government to function," explains Ralf Neukirchen from the magazine, Der Spiegel.

"They don't want arguments and that's why the parties have papered over their differences."

"I don't think they'll be able to do this much longer. If it hadn't been for the financial crisis, they would have filed for divorce already," he adds.

Election year

Mr Steinmeier is in a difficult situation. He is the SPD's candidate for chancellor; he wants Mrs Merkel's job.

But for the last three years, as German foreign minister, he has been a key part of the Grand Coalition.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses a SPD conference (8 January 2009)
I'm sure, though, that by the middle of year, when the campaign really gets going, our language will be influenced more by the elections
Frank-Walter Steinmeier
German Vice-Chancellor

It will not be easy for him to criticise Ms Merkel without opening himself up to attack.

What is more, at the very moment Mr Steinmeier needs to be distancing himself from Mrs Merkel, he has no choice but to help her fight the flames of recession.

So when will Mr Steinmeier and the Social Democrats go on the attack?

"Of course, the public is astonished that, in this election year the chancellor and I are not fighting," Mr Steinmeier tells me when I meet him at the foreign ministry.

"But, in the current situation we needed to work together to come up with an economic stimulus package," he adds.

"I'm sure, though, that by the middle of year, when the campaign really gets going, our language will be influenced more by the elections. And anyway, I'm sure that three months of election campaigning are enough for the public!"

Renewal of vows?

I ask Mr Steinmeier how he thinks his political marriage with Mrs Merkel has gone.

With Germany's political landscape increasingly fragmented, it is possible that after the election, neither party will have enough votes to allow them to form a different ruling majority

"Well it certainly wasn't a marriage of love," he smiles. "This was a coalition which the voters created, because no other stable majorities were possible."

"Of course, a grand coalition is a lot easier when there are no elections coming up. We had very reasonable relations for the first three years. It will be more difficult in this election year."

And it might be difficult for both the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats to break free of the grand coalition.

With Germany's political landscape increasingly fragmented, it is possible that after the election, neither party will have enough votes to allow them to form a different ruling majority.

The CDU and SPD may have to renew their vows if they want another four years in power.

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