Leading parties jostle for power in a fragmented Germany

The chances of the two biggest parties, the SPD and the CDU, forming a red-black grand coalition appear slim

  
Workers remove election campaign poster showing Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz, the day after the German general elections, in Cologne, Germany, September 27, 2021.

Workers remove election campaign poster showing Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz, the day after the German general elections, in Cologne, Germany, September 27, 2021.

Reuters/Thilo Schmuelgen
 

After one of the closest elections in modern German history, the ultimate winners and losers may take some time to emerge. In 2017, it took more than four months for Angela Merkel to form a coalition, and who would bet against her making this year’s Christmas speech as caretaker chancellor?

The results had the center-left Social Democrats narrowly beating the center-right Christian Democratic Union. What follows will be a frenzied season of coalition haggling, with the end result being that one of two men in their 60s — Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats or Armin Laschet of the CDU — will be the new chancellor.

Such uncertainty comes after Germany has been dominated for 16 years by one person, Merkel. Many Germans almost certainly would have backed her again if she had stood, given she departs with an approval rating of 80 percent. She will do what few politicians manage to do — retire a success.

Like many other European countries, politics is fragmenting in Germany, with more parties entering the Bundestag and the traditional parties struggling. The CDU has fallen to a historic low. In 2017, it received 32 percent of the seats, seen then as a disaster, but this time it may be about 25 percent. Remember, the CDU has been out of government for only 20 of the 72 years since the German Federal Republic’s founding.

But the result was largely a savage indictment of the party’s candidate. Laschet lacked charisma and the energy to enthuse the electorate. Being caught laughing when visiting a flooded town in July was highly damaging. Merkel failed to find a top-notch successor and Laschet was not the candidate that most in the CDU truly wanted.

The coalition permutations for 2021 make one’s head spin. The chances of the two biggest parties, the SPD and the CDU, forming a red-black grand coalition appear slim. The same could be said for the German flag coalition of red, black and yellow. Some believe there may be a Jamaica coalition — the black of CDU, yellow of the Free Democratic Party, and the Greens.

Both main party leaders have made clear preferences to avoid this, with Scholz saying that it is time for the CDU to go into opposition after its worst result since the Second World War. The SPD leader, who has served as finance minister since 2018, has won plaudits for his calm handling of the German economy during the pandemic. While he is pragmatic, what remains unclear is how much he will have to appease the party’s more radical-left base.

The smaller parties will enjoy considerable leverage, perhaps too much. The Greens and the FDP, both of whom appealed to younger voters, will be in the mix for major ministries. If the CDU is out of power, the chances are it will be the so-called traffic light coalition of light red, yellow and green.

The Greens, having come third with a historic high number of seats, will expect to be in the coalition, no doubt preferring the SPD. Many believe that the Greens are like a tomato, starting off green and ending up red. They were even in the lead in the polls at 28 percent in April, falling to about 15 percent on election day.

As with the CDU, leadership was an issue, with Annalena Baerbock, the party’s first-ever candidate for chancellor, failing to impress. Her inexperience counted against her. She also shifted the Greens from being a party that was reaching out to the moderate center to one that was close to the Greens of the 1980s, focusing on climate, climate and climate.

The Greens will push for the powerful Finance Ministry, competing with the FDP, but if not, they could secure the Foreign Ministry. The Greens’ penchant for pushing human rights may affect foreign policy if they secure the Foreign Ministry. Russian President Vladimir Putin is clearly nervous about the Greens.

The far right and far left will not make it into any coalition. The extreme-right Alternative for Deutschland, which was first elected into the Bundestag in 2017, once again garnered about 10 percent of the vote. The party is highly Islamophobic and anti-Europe, making it alarming that it even crosses the threshold of 5 percent. Its election slogan, “Germany, but normal,” stinks of vile, racist anti-immigrant rhetoric of the worst ilk. Much of its support comes from eastern Germany.

As yet, every other party has refused to entertain the notion of the AfD in a coalition. The danger, as often is the case with the far right, is that it pushes the whole immigration debate in its direction. Die Linke, the far-left party, may not even have made the threshold, so will be out of the running to be in government.

The direction of Europe’s most populous state and biggest economy matters not just for Germany, but also for Europe and the wider world. A rather laid-back attitude exists toward German elections externally. The electorate is perceived as largely sensible and its political system as robust, so allies generally count on a stable outcome; unlike Italy, for example. This result suggests this may no longer be the case.

Outsiders should be paying close attention. The US and the UK will want to ensure that, after the French fallout over submarines, they re-establish harmonious relations with whatever new coalition emerges in Berlin. Yes, any likely coalition will remain pro-European at its core, but will Germany be able to provide the leadership and drive that many see the EU as lacking right now, not least in the arena of defense?

Key to this will be the future of Germany’s relations with Russia and China. Merkel may not have been as close to Russia as her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, but she maintained a highly pragmatic line even when challenged by the US. Merkel remained in favor of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, which the US fears will render Germany vulnerable to Russia’s control and Putin’s whims. Likewise, she also attempted to push forward the EU-China investment partnership. While Scholz, her likely successor, may have similar views, the Greens and the Liberals will be more hawkish on both countries.

Germany’s role in NATO is a divisive issue, though not between the two main parties. Both Laschet and Scholz support the alliance. Scholz also came out strongly in favor of France against the new AUKUS alliance and backed calls for a strong European defense posture. The FDP, too, backs NATO, so the opposition comes from the Greens and Die Linke.

Whatever the contours of the coalition, the German electorate was hesitant to endorse a single party in an election largely devoid of serious policy debate. The mandate for any new coalition is paper-thin and the challenges sizable.



* Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech

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