In the 1990s and early 2000s, German was known as the sick man of Europe. Really, it was only in remission. Thanks to bold reforms implemented by the early noughties Schröder Social Democrat-led government, Germany was able to navigate the turbid waters of 2010s’ successive crises. However, Schröder’s ‘Agenda 2010’ was a short-lived change of pace. Instead of boldly pressing on and making Germany future proof, the Merkel administration has offered a stability that some could call stagnation.
Since 2005 Merkel has been leading a grand coalition of conservatives made up of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its sister party Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democrats. It was only briefly interrupted by the failed project of a Conservative-Liberal Alliance from 2009 to 2013 that almost led to the complete demise of the Free Democratic Party (FDP). Over these years, the Merkel administrations might have been successful as crisis managers but they have failed to prepare the country for upcoming (and widely anticipated) challenges.
Wherever the dart lands, it hits a problem
Germany is lagging in digitalization and the creation of new businesses online. Thanks to the Energiewende – a less-than-carefully-planned switch to sustainable energy sources combined with the winding down of nuclear power – industries and lower-income families suffer with the most expensive energy prices in Europe. The burden of the pension system still looms large with a hole shaped by billions of Euros. A failure to reform the electoral code could see an increase from 598 members of parliament to between 700 and 1000.
Migration is still ‘the issue that shall not be named’, but provokes social unrest and political turmoil. Bureaucracy is throwing the figurative wrench in the German engine, stifling the performance of businesses and the creation of more jobs.
Erratic decision making (for and against key industries) is adding up to the deindustrialisation of Europe’s economic powerhouse. All this without even factoring in the expected fallout from the pandemic, which required some €450 billion of new debt.
The end of the Merkel era: exciting times?
The election campaign certainly is – even if for the wrong reasons. Like in the old days of German politics, Conservatives and Social Democrats are in a close race polling in the 20 rather than the 40 per cent realm each. This is a clear sign that era of two-party coalitions has ended. A disastrous election campaign, grave communication errors and pre-election backstabbing between representatives of the Conservative family have meant Conservative candidate Armin Laschet’s reputation crashing.
Like a phoenix from the ashes
Despite previously polling below 20 per cent, Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats has continued to drive a calm and calculated campaign. Even scandals that directly affect him – such as in and around the Ministry of Finance (which he has been running since 2018) have barely affected him.
Incoming: a new governing style
No two parties together will be likely to hold a majority. Instead, we will probably see a three-party coalition. The paradigm shift in German politics is further underlined by TV debates between the lead candidates now including the Green frontrunner as well. Such is the fever dream of the German left, a red-red-green alliance of Social Democrats, Greens, and the Socialists – the legal and spiritual successor of the German Democratic Republic’s ruling party.
The red-red-green alliance has been tried and tested in Berlin turning it into nothing less than a failed state. Rent controls instead of building permits, month-long waiting lists, alimentation through the rest of Germany, a mass loss of some 700 teachers and rampant organised crime, among other mounting problems, impoverish the city.
Berlin’s ruling coalition is living proof of why a three-party left-leaning alliance would be a disaster for the entire country. Fortunately, it seems unlikely due to the SPD’s historic low electoral influence.
The SDP: a shadow of its former self
They were once a beacon of pragmatism and progress in society but now have lost their place. The SDP are guilty of telling people what their problems are, instead of actually listening. Time spent outside government could give the Social Democrats time to renew and look at the workers of today and tomorrow – instead of those from the 19th century. However, their unexpected revival ahead of the elections might prevent this. The ongoing internal struggle about the direction of the party under and after Schröder – and a preference in the current parliamentary group to go into bed with the Socialists – could end with Scholz leading the next government after all.
Jamaica: a coalition of Conservatives, Greens, and Liberals
In 2017 an attempt to form a government between these groups failed after weeks of negotiations. In the next elections, the revival of such an alliance, dubbed ‘Jamaica’ due to the respective black, green, and yellow colours of the parties involved, would be welcome.
Two factors make this a likely possibility:
- Armin Laschet has been in government with the FDP in the state of North Rhine Westphalia in a mostly harmonic partnership. He has given the liberals room to work and to grow. FDP chairman and frontrunner Christian Lindner has first-hand experience with that, coming from that very state.
- Unlike in 2017, when Angela Merkel and her band of merry men dismissed the importance of the FDP, Armin Laschet could see them as an ally in a triple coalition. Keeping a more left-leaning partner in check would be a strategic advantage and combine the two smaller parties’ will to reform with the Conservatives’ own need for reorientation.
Demerkelisation means no more politics by crisis management
Both the rise of the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) and the Querdenker movement (an anti-lockdown group) are expressions of this short-term political management. Support for the AfD is not necessarily based on excitement for the programme or the rhetoric of the party, but is rather fed by a feeling of discontent towards the established parties. After all, in 2017, the AfD’s voters came almost in equal parts from non-voters, Conservative voters, and left-leaning voters. Dissatisfied and disgruntled voters can only be brought back by finally creating a palpable move to address and solve problems.
The FDP already has signalled that they are up for a ruling ‘Jamaica’ coalition together with conservatives and greens, according to their leader, Christian Lindner, who added that he lacks the necessary imagination for a centre-very-left alliance with the social democrats and greens. It remains to be seen if the Greens will be in a similar mood after the elections.
Greener lands, but grisly laws
Carried by media hype, the Greens reached polling numbers of up to 28 per cent. This has since reduced in size. The party have started to publicly show flaws including a rather flexible understanding of the rule of law. In Saarland, the federal party and their favoured candidate repeated internal elections until the results were satisfactory, even if it meant excluding one third of the delegates. Moreover, the Greens are contemplating similar strict measures to tackle the “climate emergency”, including a climate ministry with exclusive veto power. These ideas contrast to those of the Conservatives and the Liberals. But a possible ’Jamaica’ coalition after the elections could open much-needed room for the “realo” (realpolitisch) wing in the green party, which has so far been silenced by the ideologues.
If pragmatism prevails, the upcoming elections will not only mark the end of the Merkel era and the two-party coalitions, but also a switch away from crisis management towards longer-term planning for the future, and from stagnation to economic and social growth.