The Germans did not pay much attention to this year’s election campaign until early September. The consequences of the pandemic, July’s devastating floods, and the dramatic collapse of Afghanistan dominated discussions in the media and among the public. But the 26th of September is now just around the corner and the race for the Chancellery has been in full motion in the last weeks.
Three televised debates brought together the main candidates for the post: Armin Laschet for the Christian Democrats (CDU-CSU), Olaf Scholz for the Social Democrats (SPD), and Annalena Baerbock for the Greens (Grünen). In all debates, polls indicate Scholz as the winner, with Baerbock and Laschet trailing behind. Perhaps this is no surprise, as Scholz has for some time been the preferred candidate by over 30% of Germans, well ahead of Baerbock (15%) and even more so Laschet (11%). More recent polls show that the Social Democrats have reached 26%, thus overtaking the Christian Democrats for the first time in 15 years. If these figures are confirmed on election day, it would be quite an achievement for the SPD who, only a few months ago, seemed to be in free fall. It is worth noting, however, that even if backed by 26% of the electorate, the Social Democrats would actually receive “only” 6% more votes than the historic minimum they fell to in the previous federal elections.
The real news is not the likely positive performance of the Social Democrats, but rather the downfall of the post-Merkel CDU/CSU who, with only 21% of the vote, will have lost 11% of their support compared with last time around. This would be the worst result in the last 70 years for the Christian Democrats, led by an uncharismatic and gaffe-prone Laschet, to whom even CDU voters prefer the Bavarian Markus Söder, the CSU leader. So, what to expect from the upcoming elections and what domestic and foreign policies would such a government implement?
A Three-Way Government
During Merkel’s 16-year-long Chancellery, the Grosse Koalition between the CDU/CSU and SPD has been repeated three out of four times, with the sole exception of the second Merkel government (2009-2013) when the Christian Democrats preferred the company of the Liberals of the FDP. In other words, Germany’s broad-based coalitions have regularly comprised only two parties. This will probably not be the case with the next government, however. For the first time since the 1950s, a three-party coalition may prove the only viable solution. If the Social Democrats finish in first place, the Christian Democrats – who have been in government for 50 of the last 70 years – could well find themselves out in the cold.
Only a few weeks ago, a “black and green” coalition between the CDU-CSU and the Greens seemed the most likely outcome, perhaps with the “yellow” of the FDP forming what was described as a “Jamaica” coalition. Now, with the Social Democrats in pole position, we could well see a different scenario in which the “red” of Scholz’s Social Democrats replaces the “black” to form a “traffic light” coalition with the Greens and Liberals. In any case, this would leave the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) out of the government along with the far-left Linke (though the SPD has never ruled this option out). A Grosse Koalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD (possibly with a third party) seems unlikely (at the moment).
So, what can we expect from such an unprecedented three-party coalition? First of all, a long wait before any government can be formed. The Germans generally agree in advance on the priorities of a new administration. It took Angela Merkel 171 days to negotiate with the Social Democrats alone last time around. In a three-party grouping, talks could well prove even more complex and exhausting, if only because there is evidently quite some distance between the domestic, European, and foreign policies of the three parties.
A Question of (Different) Policies
On the subjects of post-Covid investments and social policies, the green and digital transitions, migration, NATO, and foreign policy, the main political parties in Germany have different — but not necessarily 'unbridgeble' — opinions. In a three-way coalition it will be necessary to seek compromise, but this could easily endanger the stability of the government in the absence of a strong Chancellor.
In the field of investments and social policies, the gap between the Social Democrats and the Greens seems quite “manageable”. Both parties wish to introduce some sort of wealth tax and boost investments, even ignoring traditional German austerity. At the European level, both parties substantially agree on suspending the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) until 2023, using the time to boost investments and overlooking the “debt brake” written into the German constitution, which limits structural deficits to 0.35% of GDP.
The Greens wish to go even further and want SGP criteria revised to stimulate the green transition. For the same reason, they do not exclude making the Next Generation EU permanent, i.e. resorting to European joint debt, an issue on which the positions of the other parties range from caution to terror. Among those horrified by this prospect are the Liberals of the FDP, who would prefer to keep whatever measures are adopted in support of business within the framework of renewed budgetary discipline for Germany and the EU as a whole.
Finding a way forward for a government composed of Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals will therefore be far from easy. On the other hand, if the Christian Democrats come first in the race for the Chancellery, they might obtain (qualified) support from the Liberals but would have to overcome no few objections from the Greens. Moving on to foreign policy, the distance between the parties seems equally significant. In this context, the Greens could make all the difference. Their positions (starting with the NATO membership) have visibly softened in recent years, allowing them to win over moderate voters. But with the Greens in the government, it is only reasonable to expect a tougher stance on China, with an emphasis on human rights (the Uyghur question included) and import duties on “polluting” Chinese imports. The same can be said for relations with Russia: the Grünen are so against the Nord Stream 2 undersea pipeline that even recent agreements with the USA – “compensating” Ukraine for the loss of Russian gas transit fees as a result of the expanded pipeline between Russia and Germany – could well be reviewed. Neither is there any shortage of divergence on politically sensitive issues like migration and, more recently, the possible influx of Afghan refugees. Memories of the one million Syrians welcomed by Chancellor Merkel in 2015 are still vivid and have caused a split among the Christian Democrats, even spoiling relations with their Bavarian counterparts. It is no coincidence that Laschet’s position on this matter is tougher than it was six years ago when he supported Merkel’s open-arms policy. Afghan refugees will clearly have to make do with whatever welcome is afforded by neighbouring nations as, this time around, Germany seems less inclined to open its borders. Both the SPD and the FDP support this stance, fearful that a new wave of migration might drive voters into the clutches of the AfD nationalists. On this subject, too, Baerbock is a discordant voice: she has accused the Merkel government of abandoning thousands of Afghans to the Taliban, many of whom worked for the German mission to Afghanistan for years.
To sum up, with the elections only a few days away, the shape of the next German government is anybody’s guess. Angela Merkel’s departure from the political scene is indeed the end of an era for Germany. The political leaders of the immediate future are largely neophytes (with the possible exception of Scholz), and a three-way coalition formed only after exhausting negotiations is the most likely scenario. We shall certainly have to wait until well after 26 September to see if – and to what extent – this will impact German policy.