Germany has begun the long process of putting together a new government following last Sunday’s election. The third- and fourth-largest parties – Greens and Liberals (FDP) – have started talking to each other with a view to working out some common ground that they can take into negotiations with the larger parties.
Recall the key fact about Sunday’s result. Assuming that the far-right AfD is ruled out as a governing partner, there are only three routes to a parliamentary majority: Greens, FDP and SPD (centre-left); Greens, FDP and CDU (centre-right); or another grand coalition between SPD and CDU.
No-one wants another grand coalition: it’s not a healthy thing for democracy, and both participants tend to bleed support. Back in 2005 the SPD and CDU had 69.4% of the vote between them; four terms and three grand coalitions later, they are in a minority, with the combined figure down to 49.8%.
If that resolution holds, it gives Greens and FDP considerable power. It will be their choice as to whether the SPD’s Olaf Scholz or the CDU’s Armin Laschet becomes prime minister. First, however, they have to agree among themselves.
Last time around, in 2017, they notoriously failed to do so; the FDP walked out of coalition talks with the Greens and CDU, citing irreconcilable differences with the Greens. But the dynamic was different then because coalition with the SPD wasn’t an option: SPD+Greens+FDP fell short of a majority. This time, both avenues are open.
The last time that was the case was in 2005. On that occasion they also failed to work together: the FDP chose to stick with the CDU and the Greens with the SPD, leaving grand coalition as the only option. In the short term their inflexibility was rewarded, with the minors both making gains four years later, but in the long run it may have damaged the party system.
What has changed since 2005? The big thing, already mentioned, is the decline in the major party vote. Some of it has gone to the FDP and Greens, making them both (particularly the Greens) more serious players. But a lot has gone to AfD, lending a degree of urgency to the cause of co-operation between the other parties. Historical experience warns the Germans against the risk of the far right exploiting differences within the democratic camp.
Almost as important, however, is the fact that the Greens and the CDU have both shifted towards the centre. Sixteen years ago, no-one blamed them for not working together; it would have been most unusual (although even then not unprecedented) if they had. Now, however, such a thing is reasonably common – the differences between them are no longer seen as fundamental.
The FDP, on the other hand, has moved to the right. It remains broadly progressive on most issues, but its economic policies have become tailored more to the interests of the rich and it has walked back from its traditional support for liberal immigration rules. Most recently it has accommodated a vein of Covid-scepticism, straying into territory that is otherwise the domain of AfD.
Once upon a time, before the rise of the Greens, the FDP played a classic centre party role, balancing between CDU and SPD: moderating both of them and being available as a coalition partner for either. But the rise of the Greens, who compete for much the same social base, has pushed it to differentiate itself. Co-operation with the SPD will no longer be easy.
Nonetheless, Greens and FDP have a lot in common. (Hans von der Burchard at Politico runs through the details.) It’s easy to see how a process of compromise could do both of them good, softening the hard edges of the FDP while bringing some more sound economics to the Greens. And if they can work out a common program they will be in a strong position to impose it on either the SPD or the CDU.
Both Greens and FDP are particularly strong among younger voters, so they may envisage a day when they will be the senior partners. But as I foreshadowed a month ago, the two-party system showed itself to have some resilience left – or at least inertia. The combined SPD-CDU majority has survived (in seats, although not in votes), and grand coalition remains an option if Greens and FDP can’t work out a palatable alternative.
For now, it’s going to be very interesting to see what they come up with. And the very unthinkability of such a development in Australia can serve as a marker for how far our Liberal Party has strayed from the tradition that its name reflects.