The American press has widely reported on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s nickname: “Mutti,” which translates to “Mommy.” Less noted is her second nickname, which is also familial but decidedly less affectionate: “The Black Widow.” She has earned this second sobriquet because she kills her partners with whom she governmentally cohabits.
In Germany’s 2005 election, Merkel’s Christian Democrats edged out the then-governing Social Democrats by a single percentage point, 35 percent to 34 percent. The Social Democrats then entered into a coalition government headed by the Christian Democrats, with Merkel as chancellor. In the next election, in 2009, Merkel claimed credit for the government’s successes, while the Social Democrats had trouble defining themselves as a clear opposition party. As a consequence, not only did Merkel’s party win re-election, but the Social Democrats’ vote fell to an all-time low of 23 percent.
Since 2009, the Christian Democrats have governed in partnership with the smaller Free Democrats, Germany’s only anti-welfare-state party. In the 2009 election, the Free Democrats won 15 percent of the vote. In last Sunday’s election, facing a similar “how do we define ourselves? “dilemma to that which the Social Democrats experienced in 2009, their vote total slipped beneath 5 percent, meaning that they won’t have any representation in the new bundestag.
The Black Widow—thank you for co-habiting with me; now you die.
This is the conundrum—at least, the most prominent of several conundrums—with which the Social Democrats must grapple on Friday when they meet to decide whether to join Merkel’s Christian Democrats in a coalition government following last Sunday’s vote, which saw Merkel’s party win 42 percent of the popular vote and come tantalizingly close to winning an outright majority in the 630-member Bundestag. (They need five more members to get to 316—a parliamentary majority.) With the fall of the Free Democrats, however, the only other parties in the new bundestag will be those of the center-left and left: The Social Democrats, who won 25 percent of the vote; the Greens, who won 8 percent, and the Left Party (which includes former East German Communists), who also won 8 percent. That leaves either the Social Democrats or the Greens as possible coalition partners (no other party has said it will govern with the Left), and the Greens, whose vote total was well below their showing in 2009, are in crisis: All their leaders have resigned, and the Christian Democrats are clearly reluctant to ask them into a partnership.
So, really, that just leaves the Social Democrats exactly where they don’t want to be.
For one thing, there are some real differences between the Christian Dems’ and the Social Dems’ policies: The Social Dems want to establish a nationwide minimum wage (the Christian Dems back such a wage only in select economic sectors); the Social Dems want to raise taxes on the rich, which the Christian Dems emphatically don’t; the Social Dems want to scuttle the Christian Dems’ policy of paying mothers (but not fathers) to stay at home with their children. (German women’s workforce participation rates are lower than the rates in comparable countries.) Presumably, the Social Dems’ terms for entering a coalition government would include some meeting of the two parties’ minds on these issues. In general, the Social Dems’ policies—boosting domestic consumption and imposing somewhat less austerity on the nations of Southern Europe—would be more welcomed in Europe and the United States than Merkel’s insistence on reducing Europe’s Mediterranean nations to a threadbare penury.
But the larger issue is that many Social Democrats just don’t want to enter Merkel’s house of political irrelevance. The party’s bodies in several of Germany’s states have already stated there’s no way the Social Dems should join her government. “If we go into the government again, we could come out no better off than the Free Democrats,” a Social Democratic official told me Thursday. One possible outcome of today’s meeting is that the party will authorize a binding vote of its members on whether to form a coalition government. If such a vote is scheduled, given the likelihood that the party’s most fervent members will constitute a disproportionate share of the electorate, it’s likely to result in a decision to stay out.
And what would happen then? If Merkel is unable to form a majority government, she’d probably be compelled to call for new elections—in which the early betting says the Social Democrats would suffer for refusing to form a government and compelling German voters to return to the polls. Merkel’s party might win an out-and-out majority. But many Social Democrats plainly prefer the prospect of short-term defeat to the long-term eclipse that comes from shacking up with the Black Widow.