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Politics

German government has a rough first 100 days

Germany's Conservatives and Social Democrats have an overwhelming majority, but ruling in a coalition government has proven quite difficult. The opposition, meanwhile, lacks a clear profile.

A German cell phone company is currently trying to lure customers with the slogan "You want it, you get it." With just a slight twist, the grand coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) in Berlin could adopt that very slogan: "You wanted it, you got it."

You, in that case, would be the voters who got the coalition they wanted in parliamentary elections in September 2013. Two out of three Germans either cast their ballot for Angela Merkel's CDU, its Bavarian sister party CSU, or the SPD. But it then took the partners three months to reach a coalition agreement.

Their justification for the agonizingly long drawn-out negotiations was that accuracy was more important than speed. The parties' concerns were understandable in light of the previous government of conservatives and liberals which had been hastily cobbled together and then presented the astonished public with never-ending squabbles from 2009 to 2013 - at the expense of the coalition's capability to act.

Chancellor Merkel definitely wanted to spare herself and the public this spectacle in her third term in office - but it's a goal she has only partially accomplished after the first 100 days of ruling with the SPD.

There are various explanations for the slow start.

Second-best

At a merely superficial glance, it could be blamed on the Edathy scandal. Agriculture Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich had to step down in February as a result of his actions while interior minister in the previous government in connection with a child pornography scandal involving former SPD lawmaker Sebastian Edathy.

One of the two conservative parties in the coalition thus paid the political price for the alleged wrongdoing of an SPD colleague - a move that understandably led to anger and indignation in the conservative camp. Whatever harmony the coalition tried to portray quickly came to an end.

Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel, Horst Seehofer

Three party leaders, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), Angela Merkel (CDU), Horst Seehofer (CSU) (from left), looking suitably serious about the challenges ahead

But the coalition partners had anyway not yet managed to develop trust within their ranks in the first place - Conservatives and Social Democrats had trashed each other for too long in the months leading up to the election. If the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) hadn't failed to garner enough votes to enter parliament, Merkel would have prefer to have ruled with them.

The SPD was not the chancellor's first choice, but in the public's perception, the party seems to be playing first fiddle, and that rankles too with conservatives and their voters. The party only won a meager 25 percent of the vote, but Social Democratic topics dominate the headlines: minimum wage, women's quota, retirement at age 63 and rent ceilings. At the same time, in the public perception, the only thing the conservatives have to offer is - Angela Merkel.

Divided opposition

Merkel's first government was also a grand coalition, and now, three months into her second, she is bound to be more annoyed than ever that she wasn't able to achieve the coalition with the Greens party which had seemed just about possible. No matter whether the issue is the Crimea crisis or the minimum wage, both inside and outside the Bundestag, the Greens often behave as if they were part of the government.

Only the Left party steps out of line when the CDU, the CSU, the SPD and the Greens join forces on important issues in a kind of unofficial even grander coalition. In general, however, the opposition finds it difficult to make itself heard. One reason is that, between them, the Greens and the Left party won just 17 percent of the vote in the election. But what's more important is the gap between their positions: the Greens lie somewhere between the conservatives and the SPD while the Left is to the left of everyone else.

No change in sight

With an opposition like that, the coalition government can rule more or less successfully without interference. As long as the majority in society feels the country is doing alright economically, the coalition need not worry about its future. According to recent opinion polls, there's no change in the generally favorable attitude towards the coalition.

But that can't, shouldn't and won't be enough for the government parties themselves. All parties involved, including the opposition, are aware that they are in a fast-paced business. It would be fatal for Germany's political culture should the impression emerge that the grand coalition is smothering the country like a layer of mildew - after only 100 days in power.

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