After a long, grey winter, German politics was illuminated this week as a “traffic light” coalition uniting Social Democrats, Greens and liberals emerged as a realistic scenario for the first time.
The trigger was two regional elections — in the two south-western states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate — which proved disastrous for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Experts are now predicting that if it fares as badly in Bundestag elections in September, the CDU — together with its Bavarian sister party, the CSU — could find itself out of power for the first time since 2005.
“It is now clear that there can be a majority in Germany without the CDU/CSU,” said Olaf Scholz, the finance minister who is also the Social Democrats’ candidate for chancellor.
The watchword of the CDU/CSU, which has governed Germany for 50 of the last 70 years, is that it is so big that no government can be formed without it. Until now, most pundits have agreed — for months it seemed a foregone conclusion that Germany’s next government will be a coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Greens.
But if Merkel’s party continues to slide in the polls, other options might just be possible. One is a “red-red-green” tie-up between the Greens, the Social Democrats and Die Linke, a small hard-left party. Another is the “traffic light” coalition, bringing together the SPD, Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, whose traditional colour is yellow.
“We are now seeing that on the national level, both three-way options — a traffic light and red-red-green — are not beyond the realms of possibility,” said Kevin Kühnert, SPD deputy leader.
“The number of possible and realistic power options has definitely increased, and that is very important for the parties and candidates,” said Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “They’re constantly asked about who they would govern with, and they need an answer — otherwise they seem untrustworthy.”
For years, the “traffic light” seemed unthinkable. But the coronavirus pandemic — and Merkel’s imminent departure from power after 16 years as chancellor — have made German politics considerably more volatile.
Last year the CDU soared in the polls as voters rewarded the government for its competent handling of the pandemic’s first wave. But now, with frustration rising at a nearly four-month lockdown, voters blame the party for the slow pace of vaccinations, the botched introduction of rapid testing and huge delays in handouts to companies adversely affected by Covid-19 restrictions.
The CDU’s electoral prospects were not helped when it emerged earlier this month that one of its MPs had received a substantial commission on a deal to procure protective face masks. A CSU MP who earned an even bigger fee on a similar contract is now being investigated for alleged corruption.
The beneficiaries of this discontent were clear to see on Sunday. In Baden-Württemberg the Greens won with 33 per cent — their best ever result in an election — while in Rhineland-Palatinate the SPD came out on top with 36 per cent. Meanwhile, the Christian Democrats slumped to their worst ever results in both states — once CDU strongholds.
The results mean Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate could both end up being run by traffic-light coalitions. Rhineland-Palatinate already is, and its SPD governor Malu Dreyer on Sunday said the model could work in Berlin, too. “Why shouldn’t federal politicians take a look?” she asked.
Other leaders, however, played that option down. “I doubt that parties will go into the election campaign with the idea that a traffic-light coalition should rule Germany,” said Armin Laschet, CDU chairman. “The SPD might, because it’s their only hope right now — but I don’t think it’s the main goal of the Greens or FDP.”
Christian Lindner, the FDP leader, also rejected the idea. “It’s policies that matter,” he told reporters on Monday. “That’s why in our view it’s too early to speculate about colours without taking a close look at the parties’ programmes.”
To underscore that point, some FDP MPs spent Monday tweeting about the ideological gulf between their party and the SPD and Greens — especially on tax policy.
Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens, also said it was “absurdly early” to talk about new kinds of coalitions. But he also noted there was nothing inevitable about a tie-up between the CDU and the Greens after September. “Everything is possible this year,” he said. “The most diverse constellations, the most diverse dynamics.”
He listed the reasons: social tensions over coronavirus, a pandemic that could stretch deep into the spring, rising poverty and an incumbent chancellor who is standing down at the next election. “The political mood can shift in all directions,” he said. “We shouldn’t rule anything out.”