By Max Malone
A great innovation in political journalism is the nickname. It sticks in the mind and, in the case of German coalitions, provide a visual metaphor. The colours associated with political parties are formed into recognisable combinations like traffic lights or flags to represent the complex agreements between parties to form a government.
The essential thing to know about German elections is that they are highly representative; votes are allocated in direct proportion to vote share, with parties that get more than 5% of the national turnout. This means the Bundestag is far more politically diverse than Westminster, and coalitions of parties are a necessity.
At time of writing, the SPD appear back in the driving seat of German politics. Against the general trend of declining Social-Democrat parties in Europe and in spite of the dubious legacy of Chancellor Schroder, aggregated polling has them as the largest party and their leader Olaf Scholz as the preferred chancellor.
Scholz’s road to a governing coalition is a rocky one. His party may be the most popular, but it would require significant support to form a coalition. A grand coalition of the SPD and the, currently governing, CDU/CSU would be too small to hold a majority. It would have to become a German Flag coalition, including the FDP. This would pose challenges in that the FDP and CDU/CSU take a similar neoliberal approach to financial policy which the SPDs interventionism doesn’t gel well with.
A traffic light coalition comprised of the SPD, the FDP, and the Greens would require extensive negotiation. The differences in economic policy between the FDP and SPD would prove a sticking point. Combine that fracture with the Greens’ requirement that environmental concerns top the agenda and you can imagine that the Green and Yellow on the traffic lights would need some coaxing into any SPD-led coalition.
Any other options for SPD leadership would require strange and impractical coalitions involving the Left party. Their leftist economic policy would be even harder to find partners for among the CDU/CSU or the FDP. Unless there is yet further growth in the polls for the SPD, its natural allies among the Left and the Greens will not have a governing majority.
The position of their CDU/CSU rivals is worse. To state the blindingly obvious, Armin Laschet is no Angela Merkel. He is personally unpopular, lacks the pedigree of his predecessor and his lacklustre environmental record on a state level alienates the Greens. His leadership has been a concrete lifejacket for the CDU/CSU’s popularity. This dire polling state has left the party with next to no options. The CDU/CSU isn’t large enough to hold power with its natural partner in the FDP or even in a grand coalition with the SPD. This assures that the CDU/CSU will end its rule of 17 years this September.
This is not set in stone, as opinion polling is a fickle thing and only time can tell the outcome of the election. But there are a few things that can be called even this far out.
The Greens are Germany’s third-largest party and coming off this summer’s floods their message will be front and centre in the mind of the electorate. This will make them vital to both of the two largest parties who will doubtless offer them pride of place in the coalitions to come.
Since entering the Bundestag in 2017 the far-right AFD have been the Black Sheep of German politics. Strict adherence to proper procedure is a defining trait of German politics. For historic reasons, working with the hard right is counter to that procedure. Thus, no one will risk them as a coalition partner and they will remain side-lined.
Coalition building is a tricky business. The narrow polling lead of the SPD and CDU/CSU only aggravates this. The AFD staying on the outside and the ideological differences between the necessary bedfellows for a government will spawn a series of complex negotiations which will likely drag on for months. In short, any coalition that forms will not form quickly.
Image: Jorge Royan via Wikimedia Commons