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A Fragmented Party Landscape: German Voters Punish Merkel’s Party in an Election Without a Clear Victor

  • September 27, 2021

Or Jens Spahn, the health minister with ambitions of his own. Toward the end of the campaign, he appeared to distance himself from Laschet, apparently presuming that the CDU would fare poorly on election night. But instead of leaping into the limelight, he, too, was forced to take a wait-and-see approach. In a statement to DER SPIEGEL, he said: “Armin Laschet put up a tenacious fight in recent weeks. We are essentially tied with the SPD, which many had no longer thought possible. We want to continue leading the government.”

The CDU’s primary focus is holding onto power. For as long as there is even a tiny chance it might be able to cling to the Chancellery, the party will continue to back Laschet. Even the CSU, which had increasingly vented its frustration with Laschet’s campaign in the days before the election, is now striking a more conciliatory tone. Before Sunday, the party had been saying that if the Union ended up in second place, there is no way it could hold onto the Chancellery. But now, such talk has essentially evaporated. In light of the tight results, conservatives have closed ranks. At least for now.

Another way of reading the election results is: German voters are no longer interested in having a single party steer the country. Instead, they have opted for a challenging plurality.

It almost seems as if voters don’t want any of the parties to be able to govern as they would like. As if they want all of the leaders of the various parties to keep a close eye on each other so that nobody rushes out ahead. The perfect form of checks and balances.

But the vote has also expressed a significant level of distrust. Neither Laschet, nor Scholz, nor the Green Party candidate Annalena Baerbock have received enough votes to be able to claim that they have been granted the trust of the electorate. Germany has distanced itself from its political leaders, to a certain extent – at least from those that the parties chose as their leading candidates in this campaign.

And the result also means that voters will have to be patient. It will take time for a coalition to be hammered out, given the rather large number of different possibilities. And until then, the future direction of the country will also remain unclear.

Still, it can be said that true power has been delivered into the hands of the Green Party and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP). They are the kingmakers of the new government, however it might look, since both are elements of the two possible coalitions that are considered to be most likely: a grouping of the Union, Greens and FDP or the trio of the SPD, Greens and FDP. The first is known in German political parlance as the “Jamaica Coalition,” since the colors associated with the political parties involved – black, green and yellow – are the colors of the Jamaican flag. The second is known as the “stoplight coalition” for the same reason.

A third option is also possible: Yet another grand coalition pairing the Union with the SPD. Germany, though, has been governed by a grand coalition for the last eight years, and it hasn’t always been pretty. Both the SPD and the Union made it clear during the campaign that they had no desire to revisit such a pairing, particularly not as junior partner.

What, then, lies in Germany’s future? A conservative-liberal government with a tinge of green? Or an SPD-Green coalition with a liberal, FDP corrective?

The Green Approach Will Be Decisive

FDP head Christian Lindner made it clear early on in the campaign that he preferred an alliance with the Union under a potential Chancellor Laschet. The two are friends and work well together. Furthermore, the two parties have been matched up for the last four years in a governing coalition in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where Laschet is governor. Their coalition negotiations following state elections in the state were relatively free of friction. The FDP and Union also match up well when it comes to policy: both parties want to avoid tax hikes and they both have a climate strategy that relies heavily on technological improvements combined with cutting red tape for the construction of wind or solar farms.

The stance of the Green Party will be decisive. Whereas Annalena Baerbock recently made it clear that she sees the greatest policy overlap with the SPD, her party co-chair, Robert Habeck, has been more at pains to keep his options open. When he recently appeared on a primetime talk show with Lindner, their debate was notable for its civility and cordiality. At the same time, it became clear just how different are their ideas when it comes to taxes, debt and investment. Furthermore, as is hardly a secret any longer, both Habeck and Linder are interested in the position of finance minister.

Even if the Greens would have a difficult position in a coalition with the Union and FDP, it could prove advantageous. In the negotiations, they could sell any compromises at a high price – by demanding control of as many ministries as possible, for example, such as the Climate Protection Ministry, the creation of which they are demanding.

At the same time, there is no reason why the professed affinities between the FDP and the Union should be lasting. Given their losses in this election, the Union has been weakened significantly, and the CSU, after the cease-fire forced upon them by the campaign, will soon lose their reluctance to fire off barbs directed at the CDU. Plus, who wants to be part of a coalition with a chancellor whose campaign just produced the poorest results for the Union in their postwar history?

Indeed, some in the FDP have already begun wondering if Laschet even has enough support within the Union to negotiate and implement a coalition agreement. During the campaign, Lindner continually portrayed the Social Democrats as the weakest link, but Scholz’s success may have flipped the script, potentially giving him quite a bit more leeway with his party in the preliminary stages of the search for a coalition.

That, in fact, is precisely what the SPD is counting on. Even before the election, SPD strategists noted that particular attention should be paid on election night to the parties whose support increased – those parties to which more voters were gravitating. The reference, clearly, was to the SPD, the FDP and the Greens.

All Eyes on the FDP

It ultimately doesn’t matter, SPD strategists said, which party emerges as the strongest. The most important factor is momentum. As an example, they chose the 2001 city-state elections in Hamburg. Back then, the SPD emerged with the most votes, fully 10 percentage points ahead of the CDU. But the conservatives where nevertheless able to assemble a coalition together with the FDP and the right-wing populist Roland Schill, making Ole von Beust of the CDU the governor. He proved able to take advantage of an unfortunate situation.

The significant overlap between the SPD and the Greens were on full display late in the campaign at the last televised debate between the three top candidates: a greater redistribution of wealth, fairer wages and more attention to protecting the climate. Were they to form a collation with the FDP, the latter would clearly be the fly in the ointment. With their commitment to sinking taxes, or at least doing anything in their power to prevent them from rising, the party appears to be insurmountably incompatible with the SPD-Green tandem. Members of the SPD, however, insist that finding a compromise would not require anything in the way of black magic. The wealth tax, for example – which both the SPD and Greens are calling for – could be sacrificed in the negotiations. After all, such a tax would require approval by the Bundesrat, Germany’s second chamber of parliament representing the states. And it is considered unlikely that the Bundesrat would give such a tax the thumbs up. As such, it could be acceptable to the SPD to bury the idea during coalition negotiations.

Whether such maneuvers would be enough to soften up FDP head Lindner is questionable. He could ultimately be simply too skeptical of left-leaning SPD leaders like co-chair Saskia Esken and deputy head Kevin Kühnert, concerned that they would make programmatic demands that are not compatible with FDP positions.

Article source: https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/a-fragmented-party-landscape-german-voters-punish-merkel-s-party-in-an-election-without-a-clear-victor-a-cec25451-0146-4438-a240-351ada5d9966#ref=rss

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