- - Sunday, December 17, 2017

BERLIN — After the failure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to form a four-party coalition, she is turning to an old flame to salvage stability: Germany’s Social Democrats.

The center-left Social Democrats announced Friday, after many meetings and much hand-wringing, that they will enter into exploratory coalition talks with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats — a development that some analysts say, in the long run, could give a boost to the nation’s conservatives and far-right populists.

For many Social Democrats, the prospect of another four years tied to Ms. Merkel has been a bitter pill to swallow. The Social Democrats had viewed the results of Germany’s Sept. 24 poll — their worst-ever showing in a national election — as a referendum on the catchall alliance that has governed Germany for eight of the past 12 years.

While it remains to be seen whether a new coalition will form, many are wondering what its impact might have on Germany’s other parties, including the right-wing, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), now the nation’s third-largest faction in parliament.

On its surface, a renewed “grand coalition” between the Social Democrats and Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) might not be the most welcome development for the AfD.

The far-right party has gained traction in recent years by criticizing the political stagnation of the grand coalition. A revival of that alliance would leave the AfD in direct competition for voters’ hearts and minds with another conservative faction in parliament arguably more apt to criticize the government: the pro-business Free Democrats.

Germany’s Sept. 24 parliamentary election resulted in a fractured landscape that left Ms. Merkel’s CDU flailing to piece together a majority coalition. The Social Democrats, who have been the chancellor’s go-to partner for most of her tenure, received just 20.5 percent of the vote. On election night, they proclaimed they would not be entering into another coalition arrangement with Ms. Merkel.

But the tables have turned since then. Things shifted particularly last month, when the Free Democrats abandoned what had been experimental talks toward a coalition with Ms. Merkel’s CDU — talks that would have wed the two conservative parties with the environmentalist Green Party.

Free Democrats leader Christian Lindner cited irreconcilable differences for abandoning the talks.

“It’s better not to govern than to govern badly,” Mr. Lindner proclaimed last month.

Some analysts say the development was likely frustrating for the AfD.

A four-party coalition with the Free Democrats “would have been better for the AfD because the differences between those parties involved would have made for impassioned and gruesome discussions, above all else on the topic of migration, that would have been better for [the AfD’s] anti-establishment strategy,” said Florian Hartleb, a German political scientist specializing in European populism and right-wing extremism.

“Now their achievements can be measured against those of the Free Democrats, who will probably be more constructive in the parliamentary opposition than the AfD,” Mr. Hartleb said.

The collapse of the four-party coalition talks in October sent Ms. Merkel into a political crisis never before seen in Germany’s postwar history.

Faced with either the prospect of new elections or an unprecedented and unstable minority coalition, the chancellor and other high-powered political elites dragged the Social Democrats back to the table to talk out a proposed “grand coalition 3.0.”

The talks, which are expected to last two weeks, will begin next month and must pass the muster of the Social Democrats’ 440,000 members.

“Whether or not the talks will result in the formation of a government is open,” Social Democrats leader Martin Schulz said Friday after his party’s leadership unanimously voted to begin exploratory talks with Ms. Merkel — albeit under different circumstances than previous marriages.

“We want a different culture of governance,” said Mr. Schulz.

While the AfD celebrated the collapse of coalition talks among Ms. Merkel, the Free Democrats and the Greens as a sign of the end of Ms. Merkel’s reign, AfD spokesman Joerg Meuthen told reporters in October that the motley coalition would have rung in “golden times” for the AfD.

Mr. Hartleb, the political scientist, said such a coalition “would have probably been better for the AfD to launch fundamentally oppositional attacks against all parties involved because this alliance would have been extremely difficult.”

By contrast, a new grand coalition would leave more room for the pro-business Free Democrats, who re-entered parliament this year after a four-year hiatus, to continue to reinvent themselves as a no-nonsense opposition party — much to the disadvantage of the AfD, he said.

“The Free Democrats are in an interesting position because they’ve spent the past four years out of parliament and tried very hard to criticize the government in the meantime,” Mr. Hartleb said. “It could be the case that the Free Democrats better position themselves as a bourgeois, democratic oppositional party and become perceived as a better alternative for protest voters unsatisfied with the performance of the government.”

Others say the AfD also could gain in some way from the developments at hand.

The right-wing populist party, which has grown in prominence by pushing an anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist platform in the wake of Ms. Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to some 1 million asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere, could still benefit under a new grand coalition, said Tyson Barker, a program director and senior fellow with the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Berlin.

While the AfD and the Free Democrats are both conservative parties, the AfD has gone all in on their firebrand form of right-wing nationalism, a realm untouched by other conservative parties, including the Free Democrats, said Mr. Barker.

“No other party is positioning themselves there,” he said. “I don’t think anybody will give the full-throated embrace that the AfD can in the same way.”

Sticking to such nationalist politicking — a no-man’s land in the German political realm — leaves room for the AfD to bolster its base and grow its numbers, regardless of the constellation a government under Ms. Merkel takes, Mr. Barker said.

“The AfD still has room to grow, no matter which one of those constellations would have come together,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like anyone is going to attempt to undercut the concerns of the AfD.”

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