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Coalition breakdown: Merkel faces biggest challenge in 12 years

Angela Merkel, Europe's longest-serving head of state - Photo: Armin Kübelbeck

Early Monday morning German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that negotiations for a coalition government had fallen through.

The breakdown deprives Merkel of the chance to form a majority coalition, limiting her ability to steer the nation at a time when much of Europe and the western world is looking to Germany for guidance.

Talks were under way to establish a coalition between Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Green Party, until the FDP walked out of negotiations late on Sunday night. Negotiations had already dragged on for a month, with the parties approaching a self-imposed deadline for reaching an agreement on Sunday. After missing this deadline FDP chairman Christian Lindner told the assembled parties that “the four discussion partners have no common vision for modernisation of the country or common basis of trust” and that “it is better not to govern than to govern badly”, before walking out of the negotiations.

The previous elections in September 2017 saw Merkel and the CDU win 311 seats in the Bundestag, 44 seats short of what they needed to win a majority. By undertaking negotiations the CDU hoped to forge a Jamaica coalition, so-called because the colours of the parties correspond to the colours of the Jamaican flag, however there were a number of flashpoints between the parties.

“It's still very much a mystery. The sticking point used to be immigration and, apart from that, energy,” Florian Hense, an economist at Berenberg Bank, said in an interview with BBC News. “They were publicised to the media before the collapse of the talks, but whether they were actually the reason for the liberals to pull out, or whether it was that they didn't want to form a Jamaica coalition with three other parties, that remains an open question.”

In the absence of a majority, the Merkel government is now reduced to the role of a care-taking government, meaning that they can make no major decisions on issues such as Brexit or the migrant crisis. With the Jamaica coalition seemingly untenable, Merkel must either sue for peace with another party, announce re-elections or do her best to deliver on her promise of stable government for Germany from a minority position.

Merkel is by many accounts the most powerful woman in the world and, since the rise of the Trump presidency in the US, has been increasingly referred to as the leader of the free world. The collapse of the coalition negotiations is the biggest threat that she has faced since she took the chancellorship in 2005. For much of her time in the office she has enjoyed high approval ratings, but she began to face challenges in 2015 when her government accepted 1.2-million immigrants during the European migration crisis.

This move saw Merkel's approval rating plummet to barely more than 50%, with a corresponding rise in anti-immigration sentiment and the resurgence of the far-right movement in German politics. September's election saw the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) win 11.5% of the popular vote, marking the first time since the end of the Second World War that a far-right party has held seats in Germany's parliament.

Founded in 2013, the AfD surged to power on an anti-immigration platform and a sense of German cultural essentialism. The party grew rapidly, using similar tactics to those employed by other far-right parties in Europe. Most notably, during the 2017 elections AfD was the most active party on social media by a substantial margin, with 30% of the political messages on Twitter connected to the AfD.

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