Election leaves Germany in limbo

Protracted power struggle ahead as Social Democrats and conservatives fight for Merkel’s mantel.,

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BERLIN — Looks like Germany won’t be saying Auf Wiedersehen to Angela Merkel for a while yet.

The country’s general election on Sunday left the two dominant political camps — the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the conservative alliance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) — only 1.6 percentage points apart. That signaled a drawn-out coalition-building process that is likely to leave Merkel in charge, on a caretaker basis, through the fall, if not longer. 

About the only thing one can say for certain now is that post-Merkel, Germany will remain on a solidly pro-EU transatlantic course, with moderate parties continuing to steer Europe’s most populous country. With neither of the two larger parties garnering more than about a quarter of the vote, however, their traditional dominance over governing coalitions seems certain to end.  

Instead of the kind of two-party coalition that has dominated Germany’s postwar politics, the country is almost certain to be governed by a diverse three-party alliance.

As of early Monday morning, the biggest unknown remained who would be in charge.

Leaders of both the SPD and CDU/CSU laid claim to Merkel’s mantel. The SPD is leading slightly, with 25.7 percent, ahead of the CDU/CSU with 24.1 percent, according to preliminary official figures.

Both camps, which have governed together for 12 of the past 16 years and have vowed to end their collaboration, said they’d try to form a coalition with the third and fourth-placed parties, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, which finished with 14.8 percent and 11.5 percent respectively.  

It was already clear on Sunday that the CDU under party leader and chancellor candidate Armin Laschet was on course for its worst result since World War II. Unbowed, Laschet said he wanted to build an alliance “from the center of the Bundestag,” the German parliament. 

“We will do everything in our power to form a federal government under the leadership of the CDU/CSU, because Germany now needs a coalition for the future that will modernize Germany,” he said in remarks at party headquarters in Berlin as a masked Merkel, who staged a last-ditch effort to campaign for Laschet in the final days of the campaign, stood beside him.

Scholz sees mandate

His main rival, SPD candidate Olaf Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, laid his own claim to the chancellery. He said voters had shown a clear preference for his party, which he led out of the doldrums at the outset of the campaign, when it was in third in the polls with just 15 percent, to apparent victory. 

“I think we can conclude from the result that we have a mandate to say we want to form the next government,” Scholz said. “The citizens want change.” 

Just what kind of change was difficult to discern from Sunday’s early returns. Both the Greens and FDP seemed destined to join the next coalition. The key question: Will they unite with the center right or the center left?

The Social Democrats would appear to have the upper hand. Not only did they finish first, but they also came from behind, improving by more than 5 percentage points on their 2017 finish. By comparison, the CDU and its Bavarian partner, the CSU, which together won about 33 percent in the last election, imploded. 

What’s more, Scholz, who was mayor of Hamburg before becoming finance minister and vice chancellor in 2017, is vastly more popular than Laschet. Nearly half of SPD voters said wouldn’t have voted for the party if he weren’t its chancellor candidate, according to exit poll data. For the CDU and Laschet, that was only the case for 10 percent of voters. 

Still, under Germany’s political system, such considerations are largely irrelevant. Unlike in many other European countries, the parties don’t need a mandate from the head of state to attempt to build a coalition, a tap that usually goes to the party that finishes first. Instead, it’s up to the parties themselves to seize the initiative and form a government. 

There’s plenty of precedent in Germany’s postwar politics for the runner-up to end up taking control of the government. In 1969, the conservatives finished the election about 3.5 percentage points ahead of the SPD. But the SPD’s chancellor candidate Willy Brandt still managed to craft a coalition with the FDP.

There was a similar outcome in 1976, when the CDU/CSU candidate, Helmut Kohl, led his party to a first-place finish with what would today be a spectacular result of 48.6 percent. Even so, the governing coalition at the time between the SPD and the FDP together had more than 50 percent, which was seen as a vote of confidence in their stewardship. The SPD itself won just 42.6 percent of the vote, however.

Options open

With neither of the big parties able to lay claim to a clear mandate this time, it will come down to their leaders’ negotiating acumen, as they seek to convince the two smaller parties to join them. Conversely, the heads of the FDP and Greens, which have sharply contrasting views on many issues, could band together themselves to decide which of the two larger parties they want to govern with. 

Sunday evening, neither party was prepared to say much more than that they were keeping their options open. 

Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens, who years ago negotiated a three-way tie-up with the CDU and the FDP in his home state of Schleswig-Holstein, spoke on various talk shows in platitudes, saying he wanted a coalition that “was up to the task of handling the challenges ahead.” 

He did say that while many in his party’s base would have preferred a two-way tie-up with the SPD, the necessity for a three-way coalition completely changed the calculus. “There isn’t a clear voter preference so it will come down to the parties reaching an agreement,” he said.

Whatever the coming constellation, the Greens would not deviate from their insistence that combating climate change should top the political agenda, said Annalena Baerbock, the party’s chancellor candidate and co-leader alongside Habeck.

“Laying the groundwork for the country to become climate neutral over the next 20 years will be the biggest challenge for the next government,” said Baerbock, who led her party to its best-ever result in a federal election. 

She vowed that the Greens would not be pushed around in the coming negotiations. In addition to more stringent climate policies, she said her party would insist on making social justice and youth issues priorities for the next government. 

“Politics isn’t a bazaar,” she said.

While the Greens counted as the election’s biggest winner — the party improved on its 2017 result by nearly 6 percentage points — many in the environmental movement were hoping for more, especially after the party surged in the polls early in the campaign to 25 percent.

Baerbock took responsibility for the Greens’ fall back to earth, citing personal mistakes she had made during the campaign. That lost promise did little to dampen the Greens’ post-election celebration in Berlin, where the party faithful cheered on their radiant leadership duo. The party seemed particularly buoyed by its strong standing among younger voters, bolstering its claim to be the party of the future.

Free Democrats’ second chance

The Free Democrats posted only slight gains over their 2017 result, adding just under a percentage point, according to projections. Still, the party, which is also popular with young voters, hailed the result as a significant victory, if only because it confirmed that the FDP would once again be at the center of coalition talks. 

The party was in a similar position in 2017, but it didn’t end well for the free-market liberals. After negotiating over a three-way coalition with Merkel and the Greens for a month, FDP leader Christian Lindner pulled the plug on the talks, leaving the CDU/CSU with no choice but to seek the embrace of the SPD, a partnership that many believed even then was well past its expiration date. 

Lindner, who was battered in the media and the polls in the wake of that move (he justified it by saying Merkel wouldn’t make enough concessions in the FDP’s direction) can’t afford to be a deal-killer a second time. 

He repeated his preference for a CDU-led government on Sunday, saying the two parties had “the most in common.” Yet he also insisted it was too soon to begin making serious decisions about what course to pursue. 

“We are now very independent, having established ourselves as a double-digit party, and we’re going to exercise that independence in building a centrist coalition,” Lindner said. 

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 10.3 percent of the vote, a loss of more than 2 percentage points over 2017. Both the CDU and SPD have ruled out collaborating with the anti-immigrant party, whose leadership has been in disarray in recent years, in any coalition.

The Left party, whose roots lie in East Germany’s communist party, won 4,9 percent of the vote. Even if a quirk in the rules will allow the party to have MPs despite failing to reach the 5 percent treshold, it will have only 39 MPs, make a leftist coalition with the SPD and the Greens extremely unlikely.

Merkel, meanwhile, faces the distinct possibility of having to hand over power after 16 years to the party she defeated to become chancellor. 

She’ll also face blame from her own ranks for bungling her succession by not engaging in the campaign with more gusto. 

Perhaps most frustrating for Merkel, who has spoken wistfully in recent months of post-political life full of books and travel, is that, come December, she may again be donning a shiny silk suit to deliver the chancellor’s traditional New Year’s address

This article was updated.

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