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Focus shifts to Germany’s Green and liberal kingmakers after SPD tops polls

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After narrowly beating Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Sunday’s general election, members of Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) said Tuesday they want to start talks this week about forming a ruling coalition with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). But the two smaller parties have already started talking to each other – suggesting that they are working together to drive a hard bargain.

Although they were the two chancellor candidates representing the two biggest parties, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz and the CDU’s Armin Laschet are no longer the focus of attention in German politics: The spotlight has turned to FDP leader Christian Lindner and the duo running the Greens, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, who know that neither party can form a coalition without them.

The two parties met with each other on Monday before any talks with the CDU or SPD. This marks a first in German history and a big break with the country’s political traditions, noted Klaus Schubert, a professor of political science at the University of Munster. “Previously, the party that came out of the elections on top (in this case, the SPD) always set the agenda in coalition talks after the vote – and Germans are usually very keen on this kind of political tradition.”

It is a deft move from the Greens and the FDP, Schubert continued. “If the two parties establish a good relationship, they will be in a very strong negotiating position against both the SPD and CDU, with the means to really impose their policy agendas.”

‘No choice but to enter a coalition’

The two smaller parties’ efforts to get along mark a big difference with the last round of coalition talks after the previous election in 2017. Merkel was keen for a so-called Jamaica coalition uniting her CDU with the Greens and FDP. But she ended up forming another “grand coalition” with the SPD after Lindner refused to make a deal with the Greens – arguing that their particular programme was incompatible with the FDP’s cherished economic liberalism.

Indeed, Lindner did not pull his punches against the Greens in the run-up to the September 26 vote – spending much of the campaign arguing that their ecologist policies would destroy Germany’s economic dynamism if they took office.

Nevertheless, this time the two parties have no choice but to get along, said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office. “Linder can’t afford to be intransigent after he refused to enter into a coalition in 2017 – this is his last chance. And as far as the Greens are concerned, they feel that the climate emergency leaves them no choice except to govern as part of a coalition.”

The Greens and the FDP were the two most popular parties among under-30s – and this may well act as the glue between them, suggested Hans Vorlander, a professor of politics at the University of Dresden. “They’ll seek to play on their images as young people’s parties by emphasising policies like digitising government activities or enhancing gender equality.”

At the same time, the Greens and the FDP will have to tiptoe around each other’s red lines. For both parties, this will be a difficult manoeuvre to pull off. The Greens are keen to increase taxes on wealthier Germans – and that would be anathema to the FDP.

The Greens are also keen to pour public spending into the transition to a more environmentally friendly economy, while the FDP see themselves as guardians of Germany’s strict fiscal orthodoxy.

But the two parties are already considering ideas that would allow them to square these circles, Vorlander pointed out, such as “creating a kind of one-off budget aimed at fighting change, without including this extra spending in Germany’s budget deficit”.

The distribution of top jobs is another way of keeping both the FDP and Greens happy. “Lindner has basically shouted from the rooftops that he wants to become finance minister,” David-Wilp observed. The Greens’ co-leader Habeck also wants this role, she continued, but taking control of the foreign ministry may well satisfy him and his party.

Scholz or Laschet?

Despite all the issues to be hammered out between the Greens and the FDP, neither can ignore the importance of the party that will lead their coalition. SPD parliamentary leader Rolf Mutzenich signalled his annoyance that the two smaller parties’ first response to the election result was to talk to each other: “It would be good if the Greens and the FDP would also concentrate on meeting with us this week for exploratory talks,” he told journalists on Tuesday.

From a purely tactical perspective for the Greens and FDP, Laschet looks like the best bet to succeed Merkel. “His entire political survival rests on his ability to form a government and become chancellor, so of course he will be prepared to concede a lot more ground than Scholz in talks with the Greens and the FDP,” Schubert said.

A deal with the conservatives would be a tactical boon for the FDP, seeing as they are by far the closest party ideologically to the CDU, Schubert explained. If everything goes well the FDP can claim credit, but if the government performs poorly, the FDP can “blame the CDU and continue to siphon right-wing votes from it”.

However, from a more pragmatic point of view, forming a coalition with Laschet could play badly because he “looks like the big loser in this election”, Vorlander said.

In light of that, Scholz seems the natural pick for a chancellor to lead a coalition including the Greens and the FDP – although ironing out the differences between the personnel and policy the SPD wants and the desires of both parties will be a “turbulent” process, David-Wilp predicted.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that all of Germany’s mainstream parties want to thrash out a deal before Christmas – if only to prevent a drawn-out process and to ensure a dignified end to the Merkel era. It would be awkward if she had to give an end-of-year speech (it would be her 17th) as a lame-duck chancellor amid political squabbling over the next coalition.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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