An SPD-led coalition would be in the country’s best interests, but after a knife-edge result, there is no guarantee one will emerge
‘Mr Scholz’s suggestion that he represented the safest pair of hands to take Germany beyond the Merkel era became ever more plausible.’ Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Less than two years ago, the German Social Democratic party stood at 11% in the polls and appeared to be a moribund political force. Sunday’s knife-edge federal election, in which the SPD narrowly topped the polls with 26% of the vote, represents therefore one of the more improbable political comebacks of recent times. It is also a personal vindication for Olaf Scholz, the party’s candidate for chancellor. As the SPD bumped along in a poor third place, behind the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Greens, Mr Scholz’s conviction that he could still win the top job was treated as fantasy politics from the representative of a party on the road to nowhere. But as his rivals became increasingly accident-prone during a rollercoaster campaign, Mr Scholz’s suggestion that he represented the safest pair of hands to take Germany beyond the Merkel era became ever more plausible.
Whether he will get the chance to do so is still up in the air, and is likely to remain so for some time. The election has delivered a fragmentary political landscape with a near-perfect balance of forces between left and right. Chastened after the worst performance in its history, the CDU nevertheless finished only two percentage points behind the SPD. And while the Greens scored their best-ever result in finishing third, their influence in forthcoming coalition negotiations is almost matched by the economically liberal FDP, which opposes tax rises and is committed to restoring debt restrictions loosened during the pandemic. Preliminary negotiations between these two “kingmakers” will help determine whether the future coalition tilts left or right. Right now, the only certainty is that, for the first time since the 1950s, Germany will be governed by a three-party coalition.
That reflects what may be a lasting end to the CDU/SPD duopoly which dominated postwar German politics. In other European countries such as France, Spain, Italy and the Scandinavian nations, the emergence of new parties has complicated the life of the traditional centre-left and centre-right. Under Ms Merkel’s skilful leadership, the CDU appeared to have defied the zeitgeist to some extent, unlike the SPD. But the drop in poll ratings under the lacklustre leadership of Armin Laschet will not be easy to reverse. On the far right, the Alternative für Deutschland party failed to make significant gains but did well in the east, partly at the expense of the hard-left Die Linke, and has become a normalised part of the electoral landscape. The marked preference of younger voters for the Greens and the FDP, rather than the two traditional powerhouses, also suggests an increasingly plural political future.
In 2017, it took six months for Angela Merkel to be formally installed as chancellor of a CDU-led grand coalition with the SPD. A quicker outcome this time would be desirable as Germany – and the rest of Europe – emerges from the pandemic and faces the urgent challenge of meeting climate targets. Before the poll, Christian Lindner, the leader of the FDP, expressed a preference for a CDU-FDP-Green coalition, with “no green debts and red taxes”. Annalena Baerbock, the Greens’ leader, would naturally lean to the SPD. Having won, albeit narrowly, the election, the moral authority to lead a government would seem to sit squarely with Mr Scholz rather than Mr Laschet, whose party haemorrhaged votes on all sides. Given the nature of challenges facing the next German government – from redressing under-investment in digital infrastructure and other areas, to financing a fair green transition and responding to calls for greater fiscal integration in the eurozone – a Scholz premiership would also be the best practical outcome for the country. Achieving it, however, is going to be a very complicated business.