A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Three to Tango?

While Angela Merkel will likely win the forthcoming election, voters will choose her dance partner(s).
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Germany’s upcoming election is eliciting a collective yawn in Europe, with a Merkel win almost certain. But surprises may be in store in who voters choose to be with her in government.

© REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

Compared to some of its neighbors, Germany isn’t known for having elections with edge-of-your-seat excitement. Particularly in the past decade, as Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU bloc has dominated politics, federal elections haven’t had much in the way of surprises.

But this year was supposed to be different. People expected a real contest between two credible candidates on September 24. That didn’t pan out.

Merkel has now been in power for twelve years, and she is running for a historic fourth term that could make her, along with Helmut Kohl, the longest-serving chancellor in modern German history. But many of her decisions have proved unpopular, particularly her controversial move to welcome Syrian refugees fleeing that country’s civil war in August 2015. It was thought that voters were ready for change.

That change seemed to burst onto the scene in the form of Martin Schulz, when the Social Democrats (SPD) announced that he would be their candidate to challenge Merkel early this year. Schulz is well-known in Germany but had spent many years in Brussels, most recently as the president of the European Parliament.

The problem for the SPD is that they have been in the coalition government as Merkel’s junior partner this past term – making it hard to see them as a vote for change. But because he has been in Brussels, Schulz does not have ownership of what happened in the coalition back in Berlin. He could credibly be seen as an “outsider.” In spring he quickly shot up in the polls, matching Merkel at around 34 percent. People started talking about the “Schulz-Zug” (Schulz train), and comparisons were being made to Bernie Sanders in the United States.

It didn’t last. Schulz’s meteoric rise was followed by an even more meteoric fall. After his leadership announcement, his party lost three important state elections in a row. People lost confidence that he could give the SPD the headwinds it needs after years of unpopularity.

Consolidating the Message

Meanwhile, Merkel was consolidating her message, the same one she had used in 2013, boiling down to: “Sie kennen mich” – you know me. She’s a safe pair of hands, and if Germans are satisfied with the way things are, they should vote for her. The message has taken root, especially as Germans have watched the turmoil in the United Kingdom and US following anti-establishment election results there last year. Merkel’s CDU/CSU now has an 18-point lead over Schulz’s SPD.

Meanwhile the smaller parties, which were supposed to be enjoying a banner year thanks to the sweeping anti-establishment winds, have failed to take off. Germany’s new far-right ethno-nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) is hemorrhaging support. The Liberals (FDP) are failing to gain traction despite the efforts of a young, charismatic leader named Christian Lindner. And the Greens look likely to lose seats – a trend seen for Green parties across Europe over the past two years, while the hard-left Die Linke party is likely to stagnate below a double-digit result.

This has made it mathematically unlikely that Schulz could become chancellor by forming a coalition with two of the smaller parties. The numbers don’t add up.

So now, barring any surprises, it looks like the only question left for this election is who will be Merkel’s coalition partner in the next term. Coalitions are almost always needed in Germany, and based on current polling an outright majority for Merkel to govern on their own is not on the cards.

So who will she ally with? The answer could have a profound impact on the future of Germany, and the future of Europe as a whole. Merkel has three options for partners. Of course, the decision isn’t entirely hers to make. It will depend on what the public decides on September 24.

Black-Red

Things are not looking good for the SPD, and they know the root cause. They have been the victim of the classic trap for a junior coalition partner, unable to claim to be an agent of change but at the same time not getting credit for things the government has done that people like.

SPD voters are restless. Many see the party as having betrayed their leftist roots, having sold out to big business. It’s a situation similar to that being faced by the Democrats in the US, and the Labor Party in the UK. The perception hasn’t been helped by this month’s revelation that former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been appointed to the board of Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft. The former chancellor is already quite unpopular with the party’s base for the reforms he pushed through during his time in office.

The SPD’s cohabitation with Merkel has been unpopular with their base, and they have lost many of their core voters in the past ten years. Some feel that another term with Merkel could spell death. They are advocating for the SPD to sit this one out, spend some time in the wilderness and come back with an ambitious platform for real change.

A continuation of the current “Black-Red’ coalition (the colors of the two main parties) would mean that there would be little in the way of policy change after the election.

Black-Yellow

The FDP were hoping that this year would mark a political comeback. Lindner, their leader, has cast himself with a Justin Trudeau/Emmanuel Macron glow. His campaign posters, in which he is shown dreamy-eyed with a stubble beard, clearly shows the demographic he’s going for. But the German Liberals continue to be quite toxic among a large part of the German public that he hasn’t been able to soften hearts.

Historically the party has been sitting in the middle between the center-left and center-right, forming coalitions with either one as the situation warranted. In the 2009 election they won their best result in history, and entered government with Merkel’s party. However, a series of missteps left the impression that they were not quite ready to govern. The party’s leader at the time, Guido Westerwelle, was given the traditional junior coalition leader position of foreign minister, but he didn’t seem to know much about foreign affairs.

When the 2013 election came around, voters punished the FDP severely. They were unable to meet the five percent threshold – the number of votes needed to gain any seats in the parliament.

Lindner has made statements during the campaign which have led many to believe the party is still not ready for government. Earlier this month he said that Germany should recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He has not disavowed his party’s previous calls for Greece to be kicked out of the eurozone. It all adds to the impression of the party as coldly calculating and brutal.

With current polling, it looks unlikely that a Black-Yellow coalition would have enough seats for a majority. But a month is a long time in politics. If it did work, then Lindner would probably try to learn from past mistakes and decline the foreign minister position, opting instead for the finance minister position. This could spell an even more hawkish German policy toward the rest of Europe in terms of austerity and budget surveillance.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive, The Liberals are not seen as Merkel’s preferred coalition partner. The CDU’s previous coalition with the FDP was marred by strife, whereas the coalition with the SPD has run much more smoothly. In other words, Merkel is unlikely to bend over backwards to get into bed with the FDP.

Black-Green

A coalition between the conservatives and the greens isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Unlike in the English-speaking world, the Greens are a strong party in Germany that even controls one on Germany’s industrial heartland states. Surprisingly, they are the majority coalition partner with the CDU in the conservative state of Baden-Württemberg, and there is one more coalition on state level.

A Black-Green combination would mean a very different face for Germany to the world than a Black-Yellow pairing. A Green finance minister in particular could preside over a softening of economic policy within the eurozone. Alternatively, Green leader Cem Özdemir, who is of Turkish background, would make a comfortable foreign minister partner for Merkel, as they share many of the same views including regarding Russia.

However, the prospects for this alliance seem dim, given that the Greens are losing support. Their environmental message has been co-opted by centrist parties, and the Greens are no longer seen as radical in continental Europe. Rather, they are seen as rudderless, having lost their raison d’etre.

Black-Yellow-Green

Given the low polling for the Liberals and the Greens, a three-way coalition is a much more likely option.

It could be expected that the Greens would want the foreign policy and the Liberals the economy portfolio. But tensions would probably be inevitable between the two, particularly regarding the question of whether the EU should relax “austerity” policies now that the eurozone has returned to economic health. Such a coalition would therefore be less manageable for Merkel.

Red-Red-Green

There is little prospect of an extremist party getting into government. All of the four main parties have ruled out forming a coalition with the far-right AfD. But for the far-left Die Linke party, the successor party to the East German communists, the situation is more complex.

Merkel and the Liberals have ruled out a coalition with Die Linke, but the SPD and Greens have not – at least not officially. But a coalition with Die Linke is a remote possibility given the ideological differences between these parties. Linking up with the far left would likely result in anger among centrists in the SPD and Greens. But this anger may be deemed to be an acceptable price to pay to put Germany’s left back in power.

If this comes to pass it could mean a radical change in policy for the German government. The days of a tightened purse-string would be numbered, in Germany and the EU. Foreign policy could be expected to become more Kremlin-friendly. And the prospect of Germany increasing its military spending would be out the window.

This last unlikely scenario is the only one that can be expected to bring huge change to Germany’s direction. But even in the other scenarios in which Merkel remains chancellor, her choice of coalition partner could bring an alteration of course. And given that this would likely be Merkel’s last term, she is likely thinking about her legacy, too.

The German saying “after the election is before the election” (nach der Wahl ist vor der Wahl) certainly sounds tired, but come fall it will ring true nonetheless.