- - Monday, November 20, 2017

BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s efforts to form a government fell apart Monday, throwing Europe’s largest economy into a political tailspin and throwing into serious doubt the future of this generation’s most dominant European politician.

Long an anchor of stability in EU affairs, Germany may soon require more national elections just months after the latest vote, as Ms. Merkel’s hopes of cobbling together a new governing coalition collapsed.

With polls showing the result in another vote would likely be little changed from September’s, Germany is believed to be in for a period of protracted instability with a politically weakened chancellor. Many here say any new government would likely turn to a different chancellor to try to break the deadlock.

The only thing that seems clear is that Germany will be looking inward and figuring out what to do domestically while international priorities take a back seat.

“In the nuts-and-bolts policy stuff, there’s a lot of people chomping at the bit for new initiatives” in Europe, said Tyson Barker, a program director and senior fellow with the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank in Berlin. “There’s a lot of proposals on the table, a lot of energy, and they’re just going to have to wait.”

Ms. Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats have long dominated the “grand coalition” of centrist parties that have governed Germany, with the hapless center-left Social Democrats very much the junior partner for much of the past 12 years. But the center did not hold in September’s election, and Social Democratic leader Martin Schulz insisted again Monday that his party would not participate in yet another such alliance — even if Ms. Merkel agreed to go.

The Social Democrats took a pounding in the September elections and see only further erosion if they stick to the status quo.

On Monday, after more than a month of difficult talks to find common ground among four vastly different political parties, the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) — normally a go-to governing partner for Ms. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats — announced they were pulling out of a proposed coalition.

FDP leaders said there were irreconcilable differences dividing Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, the leftist Greens and themselves, in particular over immigration and tax policies.

“It was clear the four [parties] didn’t have a common vision for the modernization of our country,” Free Democrats leader Christian Lindner said. “We won’t abandon our voters in order to support policies that we’re not convinced by. It’s better not to govern at all.”

It’s a stunning comedown for Ms. Merkel, who has been chancellor for a dozen years and appeared to be cruising to yet another term in office. Although the Christian Democrats again were the single biggest party, their share of the vote fell, and so did their leverage to induce smaller parties to sign on.

An embattled Ms. Merkel acknowledged her disappointment and blamed the refugee issue for the impasse but added, “I will do everything to ensure that this country is well managed in the difficult weeks to come.”

In a politically risky move, Ms. Merkel opened the doors wide when turmoil in Syria, Afghanistan and other crisis spots set off a flood of immigrants into Europe in 2015. The chancellor argued that Germany and other rich nations had a moral obligation to accept the refugees, but the move strained social services and sparked an energized anti-immigrant backlash.

For the past month, Ms. Merkel has negotiated with the Christian Democrats’ sister party, the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, as well as the Free Democrats and the left-leaning Greens, without much headway.

Observers and citizens alike had high hopes for the unprecedented coalition, which would have given the German government its most diverse political constellation in history.

Limited options

With that prospect now off the table, Ms. Merkel has limited options: either run in new elections or attempt to form a caretaker minority government.

“Everyone would lose in a new election,” said Mr. Barker. “The popularity of all the parties is pretty low.

Merkel looks hobbled. New elections would play into the optics and perceptions that Merkel is a weakened leader,” he said.

But new elections present their own problems because of the difficulties the German Constitution presents in dissolving parliament — and none of Germany’s mainstream political parties would like to see them happen, said Olaf Boehnke, an international policy analyst in Berlin for the Brussels-based policy think tank Rasmussen Global.

Many in Germany’s established parties fear that a do-over wouldn’t produce vastly different results given Germany’s political makeup but would embolden protest voters on the left and right.

In September, the Christian Democrats bled votes to the ultranationalist, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany. Attacking the chancellor’s open-door refugee policy, the AfD entered parliament as the third-largest party with 12.6 percent of the vote — the first far-right party to do so in decades.

“Everyone knows that the only party that benefits from a new elections is the AfD,” said Mr. Boehnke. “It’s a very risky game.”

With those fears in mind, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has called on all of Germany’s political parties to swallow their pride for the good of the country and cut a deal.

“They serve our land, and I expect from all a willingness to communicate,” Mr. Steinmeier, who alone holds the power to declare new elections, said Monday.

Given the contentious political climate, analysts say, it’s likely Ms. Merkel will attempt to form a minority coalition with either the Greens or the Free Democrats. But that would be uncharted territory for the German political system, and the Social Democrats’ Mr. Schulz said Monday that a minority government is “not practicable in Germany.”

Even Ms. Merkel expressed doubts about a minority government.

“I don’t have a minority government in my plans,” the chancellor told ARD public television Monday. “I don’t want to say never today, but I am very skeptical, and I think that new elections would then be the better way.”

Despite the difficulties, however, few are ready to count out Ms. Merkel’s ability to survive — given the countless times over the past 12 years when male rivals have underestimated her political skills and popular appeal.

“She’s a crisis manager, and she knows what the stakes are,” said Mr. Barker. “There have been many crises that she’s dealt with where many have said that this is her defining moment, [but] she always manages.”

Still, two years after the refugee crisis, the Teflon chancellor is clearly weakened, analysts say.

Her generous refugee policy was the biggest sticking point in the coalition talks, namely whether Germany should impose a cap on refugees and asylum seekers and whether those who have been granted refugee status should be allowed to bring family members to Germany.

Voters expressed disgust over the failure to compromise.

“It’s ridiculous that this is what’s happened after four weeks, especially when one considers how new elections could benefit the AfD,” said Robert Pankrath, 49, an information technology specialist in Berlin.

Meanwhile, European leaders expressed dismay over the surprising turn of events for the Continent’s chief champion and guarantor of stability.

“It’s not in our interest that things are getting tied up,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday.

With Britain’s impending exit from the European Union drawing nearer, another round of Russian sanctions being considered and a flurry of European Union reforms on the table, it’s a critical time for the bloc.

“There’s a lot of disappointment and frustration around Europe,” said Mr. Barker. “People see Germany as the island of stability. That perception has cracked a little bit due to this result.”

One party that seemed eager for another vote was the rightist AfD.

Merkel has failed,” party co-leader Alexander Gauland told reporters. “We think it’s time for her to go.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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