The author is executive director of the Open Society Foundations in Europe and Eurasia
No one won a landslide victory in last Sunday’s election in Germany. And neither of the two candidates who can form a coalition and become chancellor, the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz and the Christian Democrat Armin Laschet, stand for innovation or change. Yet beneath the surface, there are dynamics at work that could eventually change Germany in fundamental ways.
The German party system is up and running. The SPD and CDU, formerly known as Popular parties or people’s parties, shrinking their voting shares. They must now acknowledge that power has shifted.
This was especially difficult for the Christian Democrats, who dropped their share of the vote from 32.9 percent in 2017 to 24.1 percent this year. For the Social Democrats, 25.7 percent of the vote is a huge success. Three months ago, they were voting at 15 percent, and some are asking if they would like to make the effort to nominate a candidate for chancellor. That’s a good thing they did.
While historical political fidelity is changing, the coalition negotiation process is also being turned upside down. Usually, the winning party would start by portraying potential partners. Not this time. The Greens and the Liberal Free Democrats is set to start conversations. They achieve 14.8 percent and 11.5 percent respectively and can form a coalition with the SPD or the CDU.
Scholz, whose SPD enjoys a slim 1.6-point lead over the CDU, has given the blessing to the negotiations between the two smaller parties. This could be a risky strategy, as the Greens and the FDP could make another deal with the CDU, depending on what offers Laschet can offer.
But Scholz has at least given notice of his respect – the key word of his election campaign – for his two potential partners by indicating that he is relaxed about exploring common ground and building trust without him. Respect, according to the FDP, was what was lacking then four years ago Christian Lindner ‘‘s party withdrew the coalition negotiations because they felt they were taken for granted by the CDU and the Greens. Whether the two minor parties can reach a similar agreement on budgetary and climate policy will be central to Germany’s future.
The most promising approach for the Greens and the FDP is to map out the direction in which they want to move the country and start from there.
It is good that both parties have proposed ambitious change agendas and do not have to protect their own legacy. This will enable them to deal with the failures of the Merkel era, especially underinvestment in innovation, education, infrastructure and the green transition. Both the Greens and the FDP have been given a strong mandate for change by younger voters.
Whoever forms the next government will, among other things, be under pressure for change on the biggest challenge facing Germany in the coming years: to ensure a fair climate transition.
Climate policy was one of the four priorities of German voters during this election. However, many young voters feel that the SPD, CDU and FDP are doing too little.
The German branch of the environmental movement Fridays For Future gave them a voice. The group said it had mobilized about 600,000 young people in protest across the country two days before the election.
What is certain is that they have placed climate firmly on the agenda of the next government.
The situation in Germany is sloppy and will remain so for a while. As a close observer of the negotiations put it today: “The coalition negotiations are like the love of elephants – they are conducted at a very high level, accompanied by a lot of grumbling and the results have not been known for a long time.”
Retiring Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to deliver the new year’s speech and begin the German G7 presidency in January. The negotiations will be lengthy and may even become more complicated if the potential partners decide to consult their party’s basis on any coalition agreement.
The good news, however, is that all parties involved are at least willing to talk. And renewal can also result from the composition of parliament itself. A third of the next parliamentary intake is newcomers to the Bundestag. Germans often say that the office changes the person more than the other way around, but this time they may be surprised.