Germany enters a period of post-Merkel uncertainty

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The one certainty going into Germany’s elections on Sunday was that they were bound to yield a period of uncertainty. As they tried to fend off other parties like the Greens or the lax-faire Free Democrats, polls showed a tightening race between two of Germany’s waning political powerhouses, the Social Democratic Party (left) and the Christian Democratic Union (right), ahead of Sunday’s vote. The country will have to deal with weeks or months of prolonged coalition talks among rival parties vying for power, regardless of the result.

Preliminary results Monday morning in Berlin showed the Social Democrats, or SPD, winning by two points over the Christian Democrats, with the Greens and the FDP posting strong showings ahead of the far-right Alternative for Germany. Although Olaf Scholz (the SPD front-runner, Germany’s finance minister) will have the strongest mandate for forming a majority government with this result, it is still uncertain if he can. Scholz told reporters Sunday that he hoped to rule out a scenario where Merkel delivers the chancellor’s customary Christmas speech this year with parties bogged down in extended negotiations over the next government.

My colleagues charted a guide to the various coalition options, which derive their names from the amalgamation of each party’s colors into one bloc. Red, yellow, and green would be the “traffic light” coalition. This alliance would include SPD, Free Democrats, and Greens. This may be Scholz’s first attempt to form a bloc, however significant ideological differences might cause problems. Scholz could be replaced by Christian Democrats by an alternative “Jamaicaā€¯ coalition, which is black, yellow, and green like the flag for the Caribbean nation. A “Jamaica” coalition almost came to power in 2017, before FDP leader Christian Lindner pulled the plug and walked away. Both the center-right- and left-leaning parties found themselves in an uncomfortable alliance that they didn’t want.

Even now, one can’t rule out a “Kenya” coalition, where the SPD and Christian Democrats restore the grand coalition that held sway under Merkel for much of the past decade, augmented this time by the third-place Greens. Less likely — but potentially still on the table — is a left-wing government of the SPD, Greens and the far-left Die Linke (or the Left), which traces its roots to East Germany’s former ruling Communists.

Other permutations are possible. As negotiations progress, smaller parties will be the kingmaker and hold portfolios from key ministries as collateral. As both the SDP/CDU have lost young voters to the Greens/FDP, they may sense the political wind blowing their way. Analysts pointed to the increasing “Dutchification” of German politics — a nod to the steady fragmentation of traditional party politics next door where once-dominant 20th-century factions have lost considerable ground to newer upstarts. The FDP and Greens are expected to work together to build their power before joining one of the larger parties.

Monday’s preliminary results marked a a historic low for the Christian Democrats — a poor performance that can, in part, be laid at the feet of Armin Laschet, the candidate tapped by the party to succeed Merkel but who ran a campaign marred by gaffes. Merkel’s party was defeated by the SPD. Scholz appeared to Germans as a more credible figure of stability, continuity and consistency than Laschet. With Merkel exiting the political stage, the constituency she held since 1990 was won by an SPD challenger.

“This will be a long election night,” Scholz said Sunday evening. “But what’s also clear is that a lot of voters cast their ballots for the Social Democrats because they want a change in government and also because they want the next chancellor to be called Olaf Scholz.”

But there’s a long road ahead before Scholz can claim the mantle of leadership. Scholz will need to make hard bargains with his potential partners in order for the most feasible arrangement, the “traffic light”, coalition of the Greens and FDP. Lindner may prove especially problematic: Scholz recently dubbed his views on cutting taxes as “morally difficult to justify.” And Lindner’s belief that the fight against global warming should be left to the incentives of the free market was explicitly rejected by Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ candidate for chancellor.

“At this point in time, I actually lack the imagination as to what Mr. Scholz and the Greens could offer the FDP that would be attractive to us,” Lindner told supporters at a recent rally. However, this may only be the beginning of tense negotiations.

All the while, Europe’s biggest economy and arguably most important political player will find itself in a kind of limbo. Merkel anchored years of German political stability, but she was also a European bulwark — an unofficial leader of the continent who helped steer it through cycles of political and economic crisis.

“Merkel’s exit creates a problem with leadership, a hole at the heart of Europe,” Giovanni Orsina, director of Luiss Guido Carli University’s School of Government in Rome, said to my colleagues. “Either the new chancellor fills that void, or we need to conceive of a collective convergence.”

But Germany arguably may need to move on beyond the Merkel era. Jens Geier of the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament told Politico that a German government led by Scholz would play a “much more active role in Brussels.” Merkel’s critics “say she delayed decisions at the E.U. level in an effort to preserve consensus and avoid conflict — and while doing so allowed for the erosion of democratic norms in countries such as Hungary and Poland,” my colleagues noted. “Her approach even earned its own verb: ‘Merkeln,’ meaning to dither or bide one’s time.”

“Whereas Merkel sought equilibrium, the incoming government will have to make key decisions that will force it to pick sides on the international chessboard,” wrote Aaron Allen of the Center for European Policy Analysis, gesturing to long-standing debates over Germany’s relations with countries like China and Russia. Trans-Atlantic bonds will remain central, but Germany may begin to show a more independent streak.” Aaron Allen of the Center for European Policy Analysis wrote that many Germans are questioning the reliability of the United States, in light of Trump’s euroskepticism, and the current handling on the Afghanistan withdrawal. Trans-Atlantic bonds will remain central, but Germany may begin to show a more independent streak.”

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