coalition talks Angela Merkel seen leaving her term early

Never-ending negotiations, and the chancellor's style of leadership, are weighing on German voters looking for renewal.
"In your opinion, are the following politicians fit for the position of chancellor?"

While the world still sees Chancellor Angela Merkel as one of the most powerful politicians and a stalwart leader amidst the cacophony of the Trump presidency, a majority of German voters doubt she’ll be able to complete another four-year term, according to a new poll. They’re tired of her lack of decisiveness and her habit of sitting out problems, and would like to see immigration reforms. As voters begin considering a Germany without Merkel, her successors have already begun to jockey for position in her wake.

Despite the criticism, 54 percent of voters say Ms. Merkel plays a “major” role in the country’s accelerating economy and an additional 8 percent ascribe her a “very major” role, according to the Infratest Dimap poll completed on behalf of Handelsblatt. Still, 56 percent doubt she can hang on for another four years in office, according to the poll. Only two chancellors have been in office longer: Konrad Adenauer, who kept the post for 14 years following World War II, and Helmut Kohl, who ruled for 16 years across both sides of the country’s reunification. All three come from the conservative Christian Democrat party and their longevity has sparked calls to legally limit the chancellorship to a decade, much like the two-term limit on US presidents.

The once-untouchable Chancellor Merkel opened herself to criticism by being unable to negotiate a new coalition government following September’s federal election. An attempt with two minor parties failed in November and she’s now in talks to rekindle a “grand coalition” of her conservative bloc and the center-left Social Democrats. Should that fail, Ms. Merkel could lead a minority government, a rarity in post-war Germany and widely seen as unstable. “I made it clear as I ran again that I was running for a four-year term. I intend to do it exactly as I told the people I would,” Ms. Merkel said before the elections.

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But who could fill her shoes? In the poll, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière surprised by leading the stable of potential Merkel replacements. He was followed by Peter Altmaier, interim finance minister and head of the chancellery. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, long a favorite among chancellor pundits, came in third followed by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the prime minister of Saarland. The ambitious deputy finance minister Jens Spahn rounded out the top 5.

One way for Ms. Merkel to quiet her critics and keep her successors at arm's length would be to finally form a viable government. Her CDU, its Bavarian sister party the CSU, and the Social Democrats set Thursday as the final day for exploratory talks about a coalition government. Although the politicians are keeping to a media blackout, information about the discussions has trickled through. The subject of migration is proving to be especially difficult, with family reunification an especially contentious point. "There is still a lot to be done," said Lower Saxony Interior Minister Boris Pistorius, an SPD negotiator. Allowing refugees with restricted protection status to join family members already in Germany has been suspended until mid-March, affecting many Syrians in particular. The CDU/CSU wants the suspension to become permanent, while the SPD wants it lifted.

Another bone of contention is healthcare reform with the SPD calling for unified public insurance, effectively abolishing private health insurance companies. The CDU and CSU reject the idea, and are similarly against a proposal to gradually increase the top income tax rate. The tax hike would help the potential government pay for planned investments of more than €100 billion, or $120 billion. Still, they all agree on a recommendation to keep the contributions employees make to social programs – unemployment insurance, a public pension and healthcare and long-term care insurance – at less than 40 percent of a gross paycheck. The business-friendly FDP, which last year tried to negotiate a coalition with Merkel’s conservatives and the environmental Greens, said it would introduce a law to cut the unemployment insurance contribution to 2.5 percent from 3 percent currently, helping meet the less-than-40-percent goal. The law could succeed since Germany’s unemployment scheme booked a surplus of €5.5 billion last year – it’s expected to have €20 billion in reserves by the end of this year, enough to weather an employment downturn.

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Should the talks succeed, the SPD, led by Martin Schulz, would take the results to a special party meeting on January 21 that will vote on whether or not to proceed with final talks for another “grand coalition,” which has underpinned Ms. Merkel's rule for nearly eight of her 12 years in office. If the party gives its go-ahead, politicians could hammer out the details of a government that would likely be Ms. Merkel’s last.

Andrew Bulkeley is an editor in Berlin for Handelsblatt Global. Thomas Sigmund is the bureau chief in Berlin, where he directs political coverage. Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Frank Specht focuses on the German labor market and trade unions for Handelsblatt in Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected],  [email protected],  [email protected],   [email protected]