Germany goes to the polls in just on a month’s time, in what I’ve previously suggested will be probably the most consequential election of the year. Retiring four-term chancellor Angela Merkel has been a major figure on the world stage during her 16 years in office; without her, Germany’s role and direction are to some extent up for grabs.
For three of those four terms (the second one was the exception), the German government has been a coalition between its two historic major parties: Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). At the last election they both lost votes, but they still jointly commanded a majority, as they always have – with 53.5% of the vote and 399 of the 709 seats between them.
This time, however, that joint majority looks like disappearing. In fact, four months ago CDU and SPD combined were scoring only 40% in the polls, both trailing the Greens, who led the field with about a quarter of the vote. There were brief visions of a Greens-led government with the CDU as their junior partner, as happens in the state of Baden-Württemberg.
It didn’t last, though. Since then, two things have happened. First, in May and June, the Greens vote dropped precipitously, with the CDU getting most of the benefit, reaching the high 20s, while the SPD remained becalmed in the mid-teens. If those numbers had held, a CDU/Greens government would have been on the cards (as most pundits had expected last year, before the CDU vote went into freefall in February).
But they didn’t. In the second phase, since early last month, the CDU vote fell back, the Greens continued a more gradual decline, and the SPD instead staged a major comeback. It and the CDU are now jostling for first place in the low 20s; when one poll earlier this week put the SPD ahead, Politico noted that this hadn’t happened for 15 years.
SPD leader Olaf Scholz is riding a wave of popularity, while Armin Laschet, Merkel’s successor at the head of the CDU, has not only failed to inspire enthusiasm but seems to be less liked the more people see of him. Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock started well back in April but has since looked out of her depth.
The question is whether Scholz has peaked too early, or whether he can keep the momentum up for another month. (Although as with many elections in the Covid-era, early voting will be a big factor.) If he can, he could well find himself in a position where SPD and Greens would be close to a majority between them and would be able to choose between the Liberals (FDP) and the Left as a junior partner to put them over the line.
Readers will remember that hostility between the Greens and the FDP spiked the negotiations for a coalition with the CDU last time, and it could easily be a problem again. If they work together, they will almost certainly be able to guarantee a majority to whichever of the CDU and SPD they choose to partner with. If they fail to, things could get tricky. The existing CDU/SPD combination is unlikely to win a majority, and neither party would be keen to continue together even if it did.
Of course, the picture could change again in the remaining weeks. But so far it looks as if voters are not yet quite ready to abandon the old parties, and that the Greens have not quite succeeded in breaking out of minor-party status. Changing an established two-party system is hard, and inertia is very powerful; even when mid-term polls show voters to be contemplating a major shift, they often pull back when the election approaches.
At the 2017 election the two parties on the extremes, the Left and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), won a disturbing 21.8% between them. The polls now put that figure down around 18%; it has not been above 20% since early 2020. In the eastern states, the traditional parties still need to work together to keep out the extremists (they recently agreed on a new coalition to do so in Saxony-Anhalt), but at federal level the threat seems to have receded.
Despite Merkel’s high international reputation, grand coalition in Germany has not been a political success for either of its component parties. But the system is not yet ready to do without them. If they can go back to defining themselves as rivals rather than partners, they may yet find a new lease of life.