Social Democrats should take the lead in Germany
AT 6 p.m. ON On September 26 the atrium of the Willy Brandt House, the Berlin headquarters of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), erupted in joy when an exit poll suggested he had won the country’s federal election. If the victory was narrow, it was also sweet. After having been for a long time in the doldrums of the polls, the SPD skyrocketed late to 25.7% of the vote, 1.6 points ahead of its conservative rivals, the Christian Democratic Union and its sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU). Olaf Scholz, the SPDcandidate to replace Angela Merkel as chancellor, said voters told the CDU/CSU that he “should no longer be in the government, but in the opposition”.
The emphasis put by Mr Scholz was appropriate. Because if this election did not have a clear winner, there was an obvious loser. At Maison Konrad Adenauer, the CDUnerve center, the mood was much darker. If the CDU/CSU had slightly outperformed the worst poll predictions, the Conservative bloc had consistently collapsed to achieve by far the worst election result in its history, losing some 4.1 million votes and 8.9 percentage points since the fourth and final victory of Merkel in 2017. After 16 years, the Chancellor, who remains in charge until a coalition is formed, will step down with a high approval rating. But his party is in tatters.
The CDU was beaten across most of the country, with a particularly dismal performance in the eastern states of the former RDA. It poured votes to all other parties except the far-right Alternative for Germany (AFD) and the far left Die Linke. More than 1.3 million voters, concentrated among the elderly, defected to the SPD. Many CDU cabinet members lost their direct seats (although they will return, under the German mixed proportional system, to parliament on party lists). The Baltic Coast seat vacated by departing Ms Merkel went to the SPD. Infuriating for those CDU members who had become frustrated with the lukewarm support, or worse, of their fictitious Bavarian allies, the CSU lost only one seat compared to the CDU‘s 49.
Much of the fault lies with Armin Laschet, the unconvincing candidate chosen by the CDU/CSU to fill Ms. Merkel’s shoes. In the final stages of the campaign, Mr. Laschet increasingly relied on the negative message that the CDU/CSU had to be re-elected to prevent Mr Scholz from inviting Die Linke, along with the Greens, to the government. Never quite plausible, this proposal will not be tested because the fictitious left coalition does not benefit from a majority.
The CDU/CSU did not seem better prepared for the post-election. Recklessly, Mr. Laschet claimed to have discerned a “clear mandate” to lead a “Jamaican” coalition, with the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), a little liberal outfit, as junior partners (the colors of the parties correspond to the flag of the island). As the scale of the defeat worsened, he abandoned this dubious notion in favor of another: that the party ranked second in the German elections had often proceeded to form a government. Yet none had suffered a defeat of the magnitude of the one they had overseen. As several of Mr. Laschet’s colleagues have pointed out, the party needed a better argument to stay in power.
Discontent is growing rapidly in the conservative ranks. There have been calls for “staff discussions”; code for Mr. Laschet to resign. A potential rebellion over the identity of the leader of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group was stifled only with a last-minute compromise. And the friction between the sister parties has intensified. On September 28 Markus Söder, the CSU The leader, whom Mr Laschet had defeated in an internal struggle for chancellor’s candidacy in April, admitted that Mr Scholz was “best placed” to form a coalition.
More than two-thirds of German voters think Mr Laschet should throw in the towel. As his chances of forming a government fade, his last hope is to FDP and the Greens an offer he imagines they cannot refuse. If that fails, says a CDU Deputy, it will be gone in a month.
The magical center of Germany
As in other European countries, the German vote is fragmenting (see Charlemagne). The SPDThe return of s cannot mask a lasting drop in the share of the vote going to the two major “popular parties”, from 82% in 1987 to less than 50% this time (see graph 2). This is why Germany is probably heading towards its first three-way coalition since the 1950s. (A sequel to today’s CDU/CSU–SPD “Grand coalition”, with Mr Scholz as chancellor, is possible, but neither party wants it.) 40% of voters said they wanted “fundamental change”.
But unlike much of the rest of Europe, the fragmentation has not come at the expense of (broad) central Germany. The AFD lost ground, even if the CDU the collapse of East Germany made it the strongest party in Saxony and Thuringia (see Figure 3). Die Linke did even worse, barely scratching the Bundestag. Meanwhile, the four major parties — the CDU/CSU, the SPD, the Greens and FDP—Will hold 85% of the seats in the new Bundestag, up from 78% in 2017. In Germany, at least, the center holds.
It also moves to the left. The SPD and the Greens, natural partners of the coalition, together collected 40.5% of the vote, up 11 percentage points compared to 2017 and almost all to the detriment of the CDU/CSU. The conservative bloc of CDU/CSU and FDP together, obtained 35.6% of the vote. This turn to the left is one of the reasons for the momentum behind Mr Scholz’s attempts to form a “traffic light” coalition, led by his SPD with the FDP and the Greens as junior partners. Another is the aura of humiliation that now hangs over the CDU/CSU. We are talking about a “coalition of winners”. If the FDP The vote was broadly stable in 2017, the green score of 14.8% was by far the best in their four decades of history.
Indeed, the small parties have taken the first steps. In a televised debate on election night, Christian Lindner, the FDP, said his party would talk to the Greens before trying to come to an agreement with one of the bigger parties. The FDP and the Greens, needed either in a Jamaican configuration or in a traffic light configuration, will occupy 210 seats in the new Bundestag, or more than the CDU/CSU or the SPD. A common platform would carry more weight than a typical kingmaker could hope for. “It would be eye-level negotiation,” says environmentalist Janosch Dahmen deputy.
Those who are close to FDP-Green talks call for caution. Both sides have to overcome serious political and cultural differences. They disagree on taxation and spending, investment policy, European tax rules and much more. In 2017, it was Green-FDP tensions that ended Angela Merkel’s hopes of forming her own Jamaican coalition. Their respective bases hate each other. “F.D.P.: Fick den Planeten (“Fuck the planet),” Jürgen Trittin, a former green leader, tweeted during the campaign. The road to everything FDP-The green accord looks rocky.
Yet “rocky roads do not scare us,” says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a FDP deputy. “We build good cars in Germany. »Towards the end of the campaign, as the SPD‘sa brought up the prospect of a traffic light coalition, Mr Lindner tempered his language accordingly. Robert Habeck, the co-leader of the Greens, who will play a crucial role in the talks, told his party colleagues to seek common ground with the Liberals rather than victory over them. Economic boffins on both sides are making plans to close the many circles, including a rig on tax hikes and the creation of off-budget vehicles that could increase public investment without violating the “debt brake.” Germany, which limits deficit spending – a red line for the FDP.
In addition, the two parties, which together won a near majority among the first-time voters, can present a credible story of change. This could find expression in support for projects such as improving Germany’s strong digital infrastructure, reforming education or streamlining planning procedures. September 28, just after the CDU/CSU deputys had weighed on the future of Mr. Laschet, the Greens and FDP the executives surprised everyone, including their own colleagues, by posting a selfie on Instagram with a serious caption speaking of “middle ground.” The signal was clear: while others bicker, the new guard gets to work.
The FDP-Green talks, insiders say, are about building trust rather than putting together detailed policies; let alone the distribution of ministerial posts, a complicated matter that tends to occur at the end of coalition talks. The imperturbable Mr. Scholz is happy that his potential partners are learning to work together before opening negotiations with his team. Even if Mr. Laschet is a walking dead, for the moment neither the Greens nor the FDP will exclude a Jamaican coalition. To do so would instantly increase Mr Scholz’s bargaining power. Besides, there are whispers that the CDU/CSU could seek to overthrow Mr. Laschet and approach small parties with a different candidate.
Yet the momentum is firmly with the SPD. Its officials hope to start traffic light talks by mid-October and meet Mr Scholz’s goal of finalizing a government by Christmas, just in time for Germany g7 presidency in January. Nothing is certain. The FDP and the Greens may not come to an agreement, and for now the CDU/CSU clings to his hopes of staying in power. But the stars are lining up for Mr. Scholz. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Scholz Advantage”