Chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) Christian Lindner, leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) Angela Merkel, leader of the German Green Party Katrin Goering-Eckardt, and Chief of Staff of the German Chancellery Peter Altmaier are seen on a balcony of German Parliamentary Society offices during the exploratory talks about forming a new coalition government held by CDU/CSU in Berlin, Germany, October 30, 2017.
Axel Schmidt / Reuters

Over the weekend, Christian Lindner, the young, camera-loving chairman of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), dashed hopes that Berlin would form a black-green-yellow “Jamaica” coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc and the Greens. After two months of negotiations, following the CDU’s clear but muted victory in the parliamentary elections in September, Lindner walked out on the talks, saying that the parties had failed to find a way to govern together. As he told the press Monday morning, they were unable to agree on “a common idea of how to modernize Germany.”

Nobody said it would be easy for this eclectic quartet, with the conservative CDU, its sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), the pro-business FDP, and the leftist Greens, to cobble together a coalition agreement when their core issues—immigration, taxes, and the environment—were on the line. With the collapse of the coalition talks, and calls for a snap election, Europe’s largest economy, and its stable center, enters uncharted territory just as the continent awaits Berlin’s direction on a host of tough issues, such as European defense, Eurozone reform, and Brexit.

The normal path to forming a government in postwar Germany, however acrimonious the election campaign, is for a center-right and a center-left party to join together with a junior partner. This has not been the case for most of Merkel’s time in power; she has governed twice in a grand coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Governing from the middle has altered the German political landscape, enabling populist parties to emerge on the fringes and hobble the formation of natural majorities. This time, however, the SPD, led by Martin Schulz, rejected the formation of a grand coalition. The party needs to recuperate from a historic loss at the polls and also rightfully prevent the populist, right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), which grabbed seats in the Bundestag for the first time after the September election, from capturing the coveted role as the largest opposition party in Parliament.

On the surface, it looks as if Lindner defied political tradition, and many have been quick to denounce him as irresponsible and selfish for putting his party’s needs before those of his country. Lindner claims, however, that the political gaps among the parties were too large to bridge and that it was therefore better to refrain from a marriage that was bound to end in divorce.

And he may be right. Germany is in need of a reset to piece together its fragmented political system. A snap election could therefore usher in an era of new political leadership and also give the established parties a chance to recapture their core voters and diminish the pull of the AfD.

That’s not to say that there are no good reasons for those involved in the marathon negotiations to be bitter. Lindner could have exited earlier. Instead, he waited until the very end of the weekend deadline to brazenly declare, in a seemingly planned statement, that it is “better not to govern than govern badly.” The Greens say that common ground was in sight and that the FDP offered no concrete reason for pulling out. And of course, the FDP’s decision to walk out of the coalition talks will undoubtedly prolong instability in Europe. And yet it is for these reasons that a strong German government is needed. Political deadlock and new elections are unconventional for Germany, but they will not necessarily lead to a political crisis if the established parties manage to regroup.

Should Germany return to the polls, it’s certainly possible for the AfD to gain more seats by accusing the established parties of failing to deliver a government. On the other hand, previous AfD voters might feel that they have had their chance to protest during the last election and will now return to the conservatives or the SPD. Lindner has also tacked right, echoing the rhetoric of his young Austrian peer, Sebastian Kurz, on the need for tougher immigration policies, and has thereby stolen some of the AfD’s base. The FDP’s bullishness during the coalition talks could also make it a more attractive party, one framed as driven by principles rather than political expediency.

For the established parties, new elections offer a chance for them to speak to the heart of voters’ concerns. Now, with hindsight, the major parties would probably concede that they were off message during the last election. The SPD didn’t win votes by talking ceaselessly about the need for fairness to return to German society, and Merkel’s promise of more of the same failed to allay apprehensions about immigration, terrorism, and the future of the European Union. Both parties now have a chance to recoup the losses they faced during the last election by appealing to their core constituencies and crafting strategies that address the feeling in the former East Germany that the region, which has become an AfD stronghold, has been left behind.

The question of new leadership will also be on the agenda. Lindner knows he is in it for the long haul, whereas the Greens, SPD, and the conservatives must ultimately find new personalities to guide their parties forward. After all, new faces can revive a party. Even Merkel must consider her exit strategy soon, and she is better off doing so while popular and in the driver’s seat. If the established parties regain their strength and diffuse the power of the populist parties on the right and left, Germany could return to the days of traditional coalition politics once more. This would lead to a stronger Germany, and thus, a stronger Europe.

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  • SUDHA DAVID-WILP is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Deputy Director of the Berlin office at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
  • More By Sudha David-Wilp