Germany faces coalition conundrum

Dr Oliver Hartwich
27 September, 2021

Germany has voted. The result is not an earthquake, but a landslide. A change of power is looming after 16 years of Christian Democrat-led federal governments.

MMP electoral systems can take longer for a new coalition government to emerge. New Zealanders understand this better than others. This is precisely the difficulty Germany is facing right now.

The centre-right CDU/CSU alliance and centre-left SPD are almost tied with around 25 percent of the vote. Despite gaining over 14 percent, the Green Party is still far off from their ambitious goals. Both the liberal FDP and the right-wing populist AfD manage around 11 percent, while the post-communist Die Linke is narrowly back in parliament with 5 percent of the vote.

Creating coalitions in a situation like this is challenging. Yet, there are many possibilities for government formation. However, all coalition combinations suffer from the fact they are at best marriages of convenience.

It seems likely that the Social Democrats will lead the next federal government. Olaf Scholz, the party’s top candidate, lifted the SPD from 15 percent only a few months ago to 25 percent after a strong campaign. Scholz’s success is primarily a result of his own personal qualities, since voter surveys show his personality helped tilt the scales.

The problem for Scholz is that he needs both the Greens and the Liberals to form a parliamentary majority. As a coalition partner of the Social Democrats, the Greens are a natural fit.

The position of the liberal FDP is quite different. Tax cuts and balanced budgets are their key demands, which are anathema to the ideas of the SPD and the Greens. To translate it into New Zealand terms, it would be a coalition of Labour, Greens and ACT. If that is difficult to envision here, the same holds true in Germany.

Meanwhile, there is a mirror-image issue for the Christian Democrats. The Liberals are the natural partner for the CDU/CSU, just as in New Zealand National and ACT form a bloc. But the CDU’s candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, would have to win over the Greens to gain a majority. Before the election, the Greens’ top candidate, Annalena Baerbock, had already stated where she would like to see the CDU: in opposition.

Therefore, forming a coalition is equally difficult for both major parties. Remember that after the last election in 2017, the CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP already tried to form a coalition – but failed.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Federal President, intervened at that point to insist on the continuation of the so-called “grand” coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (the equivalent of a coalition between National and Labour in New Zealand). The Social Democrats did not want to do this but could not resist the pressure from the head of state.

Will this happen again if no coalition is formed? The possibility is not completely out of the question, but it is less likely than four years ago. The balance of power has shifted this time, so the existing ‘grand’ coalition is not the most likely outcome. This time, the Social Democrats are narrowly ahead of the CDU/CSU, whereas they were much weaker in 2017.

On the other hand, after its first election campaign without Angela Merkel, the CDU/CSU looks like a mess. Its size has almost halved from what it was only a few years ago. That would be tragic enough for the political force that shaped and governed post-war Germany like no other.

It is much more profound, however, to note that after two decades under Merkel, the Christian Democrats have been gutted of personnel and content.

Merkel had always prevented other leaders from establishing themselves next to her. As a result, the CDU’s layer of qualified personnel is thin. Choosing a staid and provincial politician, Armin Laschet, for the party leadership says it all. His election campaign confirmed his lack of suitability for the top job.

There is no clear programmatic vision in the CDU, either. Over her long time in office, Chancellor Merkel made her party take on a variety of positions. For and against nuclear power. Against and then for mass immigration. Against and then for same-sex marriage. Against and for joint liability for debts in the EU. There is hardly any position of which Merkel would not have also held the opposing view for a while.

It seemed as if Merkel would abandon any principle in pursuit of short-term tactical advantage. This helped the perennial chancellor stay in office. But it meant her party has become unrecognisable.

The CDU/CSU has no compelling reason to remain in power. The party has no core values anymore. It has no ideas, no people, and no concepts. And it is not because Angela Merkel left. Rather, it is because Merkel has led her party to precisely this point.

Therefore, it is both logical and necessary for the Christian Democrats to regenerate themselves in opposition. Some may still vaguely remember why they once joined the CDU.

To accomplish this, a Social Democratic-led federal government, including the Greens and the Liberals, is necessary. Even if this offers little of a cohesive vision, it still may happen. For three reasons.

First, it would be hard to explain why Olaf Scholz should not become chancellor. Among the top candidates, he was by far the most popular and achieved an excellent result.

Second, both the Liberals and the Greens are eager to finally get back into government. The Liberals’ last (and disastrous) stint in government ended in 2013, while the Green Party has been in opposition for 16 long years.

Third, some personal experience may help bridge political gulfs. Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Green Party, had forged a coalition with the FDP before. It was only at the level of the German state Schleswig-Holstein, where big politics rarely happens. But still.

So Germany has voted. Yet a new government is still a long way off. And the voters have given the parties, particularly the CDU, plenty of reason to reflect.

Once Germany’s politicians have formed a government, probably after several months, they will have a lot to discuss regarding the fragmented party system. The question is whether they can restore its previous stability.


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