German Greens leader Annalena Baerbock

Glyn Ford examines the state of play for left parties in forthcoming German elections

Germany goes to the polls on 26th September, marking Chancellor Angela Merkel’s long goodbye after 16 years in power. The election was to be dominated by Covid handling and recovery, but July’s floods pushed the environment joint top of the table. The final outcome is far from clear. Yet – absent Merkel – the one thing that is certain is there will be a sharp shift in the German political landscape and foreign policy which will knock-on across Europe.

Much of the focus has been on personality rather than policy and the question of trust – who can Germans rely on to take over from Merkel, who adroitly guided the country through serial crises? The conservatives promise “stability and renewal”, while progressives promise a “new start rather than status quo”. Germans actually want both, but don’t know how to get them and who to trust to deliver them.

Tackling climate change will be a top policy issue. Zero carbon emissions is a common goal – save for the far-right Allianz für Deutschland (AfD) – but the question is when, how and how much? Here, unsurprisingly, the Greens have the most ambitious plans, while the Christian Democrats and the Liberals prioritise a flexible approach that mitigates climate regulation to protect industry. Meanwhile the SPD’s Chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, favours a version of having your cake and eating it with a massive infrastructure programme, renewable energy and zero carbon for 2045.

No party has any prospect of winning an overall majority. At minimum it looks like a three-party coalition. Six parties are on the board, and four part of the political jigsaw. At the moment – even though they are likely to finish second (18-19%) – the most certain party of government is the Greens, closely followed by the conservative CDU/CSU currently on 24-26%, along with one of the FDP (Liberals, 11-13%) or the SPD (centre-left social democrats, 17-19%). Die Linke (post-Communist, 7%) will not be part of any coalition, while there is a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the AfD (10-12%). 

The Greens want another taste of government after their spell as junior partners to the SPD (1998-2005).The sweet spot for them, which looked feasible two months ago, are the twin options of a two-party coalition with the CDU/CSU, and an alternative left Greens-SPD-(maybe) FDP coalition with Die Linke support from outside. But the maths no longer add up. Support has ebbed from the CDU/CSU’s Armin Laschet and the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock and boosted – to a degree – that of the SPD. Now the nightmare scenario has the Green-CDU/CSU needing either the SPD or FDP to govern. If negotiations between the Greens and CDU/CSU would have been hard, adding a third into the mix will make talks at worse close to impossible and at best prolonged. As for the SDP, going into a coalition as the third party would be a sign of failure – though the siren voices of power will attract the leadership. Last time around the SDP virtually destroyed its political base in the interest of state and nation. Its militants will be wary of compounding the offence. It might work if they pip the Greens for second place, and they do have momentum on their side.

Back in May voters were disgruntled with the government’s tardy vaccination campaign and its climate change policies. There were hints of a seismic shift and even a Green-led government as they briefly outpolled the CDU/CSU. But they manufactured from crumbs ‘scandals’ around the Green Chancellor candidate Baerbock (inflation of her CV, failing to report bonus payments, plagiarism allegations) which have hurt. Mere peccadillos compared to the CDU’s own massive corruption; nevertheless, Green support peaked and shrinks. Internal Green polling back then showed 8% of ‘hardcore’ supporters, 6% ‘fellow-travellers’ and a block of 6-12% of voters considering ‘lending’ their – often former SPD – support to control the CDU/CSU. Those voters are drifting back ‘home’ as the electorate find Scholz the best of a bad bunch; an acceptable candidate in a thin year.

It was argued Baerbock was an unknown quantity. It turns out that was a positive. The longer the negative headlines drummed the less attractive they found her. If anything Laschet’s fared worse. To boring predictability he stirred in a series of gaffs and blunders. The favoured candidate to replace Merkel is ‘none of the above’. There is a real prospect of a virtual three-way tie between CDU/CSU, Greens and SPD. If that’s the case, with the FDP running interference, this trinity may leave Germany with no government for months and then a leaderless position without power. With Macron in deep trouble after his party’s lacklustre performance in France’s provincial elections, we may find that, to paraphrase former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley, the one thing worse than EU Franco-German leadership is no leadership at all.

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