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What Is Going On with the German Election?

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What Is Going On with the German Election?

Elections, we are often reminded, have consequences, but those consequences can take time to unravel. Sometimes the result is a marathon of negotiations, which can go in many directions. In Washington, one consequence of the 2020 election is that Democratic control of the Senate can be lost with a single vote, and that of the House with the defection of a relatively small group. These narrow margins have led to a bewildering situation in which the country can simultaneously come close to a federal-government shutdown (because of a failure to fund the government) and to a default (because of a failure to raise the debt ceiling, a statutory limit that serves not as an instrument of financial prudence but of legislative blackmail). Those negotiations happen both within and between the parties, and in both cases they have taken on a tone that veers from fervent and idealistic to unyielding, bitter, cynical, meretricious, and absurd—sometimes at dizzying speed.

It might, then, be instructive to look at another set of election-induced negotiations unfolding this week, some four thousand miles away. Last Sunday, Germany held its first election in almost a generation in which Angela Merkel did not lead her party, the Christian Democratic Union (which runs alongside its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, in federal elections). Merkel, who is sixty-seven, has been Chancellor since 2005. She is stepping down from politics, and the weight she has carried can be seen in the election’s results: no one really won. The C.D.U. had a historically bad result: it received 24.1 per cent of the votes. But the biggest vote-getter, the center-left Social Democratic Party, known by its German initials S.P.D., got only 25.7 per cent. The Green Party was third, with 14.8 per cent, and the Free Democratic Party (F.D.P.), which might be described as socially liberal and economically conservative, came fourth, with 11.5 per cent. Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right party, came in at 10.3 per cent, while the Left, whose name is apt, got about five per cent; both had their strongest showings in the states that were once part of East Germany.

Early Newspaper

Two things should be clear from those numbers: that it will take a coalition, probably of three parties, to form a government, and that there is no clear analogue between German and American parties. It’s not helpful, for example, to say that the C.D.U. is their version of our Republicans and the S.P.D. of our Democrats, because in so many ways they’re not. Both those realities stem from Germany’s complex proportional-representation system, which allows even small parties to have a real presence in the Bundestag, as long as they either get five per cent of the vote or win three seats outright. (Germans get to cast two votes: one for a local candidate and one for a party—again, the math is complicated.) This provision tends to cause parties to proliferate and take on distinct identities, but it can also push them together to form coalitions. Indeed, the current Merkel government is a “Grand Coalition” of the C.D.U. and the S.P.D.; her Finance Minister is Olaf Scholz, who led the S.P.D. in this election and is the Party’s candidate to replace her. The C.D.U. chose Armin Laschet, the Minister-President of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, as its would-be Merkel successor, and the consensus is that this choice was a big mistake. Laschet proved to be a profoundly uninspiring campaigner; a report in Der Spiegel, the German news magazine, quoted C.D.U. leaders in the former East Germany who were particularly frustrated and angry at how he hurt the Party there: “Nobody in East Germany wants Armin Laschet,” one said. In a YouGov poll conducted in the days after the election, sixty-eight per cent of voters surveyed said that they didn’t think Laschet should continue to hold any political position at all. His future is the subject of another set of negotiations within the Party; if he steps down or is ousted, the likeliest replacement is Markus Söder, the Minister-President of Bavaria and the head of the C.S.U.

But nobody wants another Grand Coalition, which is seen as stultifying; no one really wanted one last time, either, but it was a last resort when other negotiations broke down. This time, the parties seem highly motivated to strike a deal. The math is relatively straightforward. The S.P.D. has won two hundred and six seats and the C.D.U. has a hundred and ninety-six seats; three hundred and sixty-eight are required for a majority in the seven-hundred-and-thirty-five-seat Bundestag, where the Chancellor must have the support of a majority. Neither Party is willing to form a coalition with the AfD, which has eighty-three seats, on account of the Party’s extremism—or, at least at this point, with the Left, which at any rate only has thirty-nine seats. The focus is on the Greens and the F.D.P., which won a hundred and eighteen seats and ninety-two seats, respectively—two hundred and ten combined, more than that of either of the bigger parties—and which are already negotiating with each other to figure out where their common ground might be, to thus increase, presumably, their combined bargaining power with either the S.P.D. or the C.D.U.

There is a shorthand for this. Every party in Germany has a color: the C.D.U.’s is black; the S.P.D.’s is red; the F.D.P.’s is yellow; and, of course, the Greens’ is green. And so the basic choice now is between a “traffic-light coalition” (red, yellow, green) and a “Jamaica coalition” (black, yellow, green—like that country’s flag). A traffic-light coalition led by Scholz is considered the most likely, though there is no deal yet. But what may be more confusing for Americans than the math or the color schemes are the basic politics. On Tuesday, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck, the co-leaders of the Greens, whose focus is not only on the environment but also on what would be called in the United States social-justice issues, and Christian Lindner and Volker Wissing, the two top officials of the F.D.P., which has a pro-business focus and a Mitt Romney vibe, each posted a selfie of the four of them on their Instagram pages. Each had the same caption—a few lines about getting together to build bridges, which ended with “Exciting times.” (Politico Europe called the photo “meme-tastic.”) Exciting or not, the negotiations could take weeks, and take on a less upbeat tone.

There is another reason why it is not helpful to map German parties onto American ones at the moment, and that is the politics of climate. (Catastrophic flooding in Germany this summer brought the urgency of the issue home.) There is a cross-party consensus on the need to address the climate crisis aggressively—something that simply does not exist in the United States. A Financial Times piece on optimism in the business community about a three-party coalition included a telling quote from the head of a German chemical company, who said, with regard to climate policy, “I expect the Greens to drive the government in the right direction, while the liberals”—the F.D.P.—“will keep the focus on the free market.” The “right” direction is toward doing something.

It helps, again, that Germans have a fair amount of practice with coalitions, including at the state level, where there have been traffic-light, Jamaica, and also Kenya (black, red, green) coalitions. It also helps that none of the four largest parties are extreme; none have completely lost their bearings, in a Trump-Marjorie Taylor Greene sense. (The same can’t be said of some of the minor parties: the strength of the AfD in the east is a matter of real concern.) That state of affairs is partly a function of the multiparty system itself. It’s not just that QAnon followers would have their own party. A theoretical party led by, say, Bernie Sanders would also be in a position to strike deals in contexts other than debt-ceiling showdowns. In other words, in the German system, those who are driven only by extremism can be cordoned off; those who have a practical agenda, even a radical one, have more routes to articulate and pursue it, perhaps refining and moderating it along the way. That’s the ideal, anyway. Coalitions can also lead to democracy-endangering fracturing—look at the Weimar Republic. But that’s not what seems to be happening in Germany right now. And who knows what’s happening in Washington.


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What Is Going On with the German Election?