In Germany’s Election, the Center Can Hold

Next Sunday’s German election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But even if Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats do pull off an upset victory, they’re promising continuity with Angela Merkel’s policies — not the change working people need.

Whichever coalition replaces Angela Merkel's government in next Sunday's election, chances are it will pursue another four years of Merkelism. (Omar Marques / Getty Images)

When Angela Merkel finishes up her fourth and final term as German chancellor next week, it really will mark the end of an era. Though not the country’s longest-serving head of government (an honor still reserved for founding father Otto von Bismarck), Merkel’s reign was remarkable. Her sixteen years in office saw a sweeping consolidation of Germany’s economic and political might, firmly establishing it as the paramount power in the European Union. This ascent within the EU was accompanied by near-continuous economic growth at home — boosted by the low-wage sector created by previous chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s neoliberal reforms.

While much of Europe struggled to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, German GDP recovered its losses by mid-2011 and has posted consistent quarterly growth numbers ever since. Social inequality has also risen considerably — Germany now has twice as many billionaires as it did when the Christian Democrat (CDU) leader Merkel was first elected in 2005 — but many voters don’t seem to mind. Just days before she steps down, nearly two-thirds of Germans say they are “satisfied” with her performance. Wages might be stagnant, but at least there are stable jobs to be had and a federal state that, so far, appears capable of dealing with crises (of which there have been plenty). Rent has grown unaffordable in many urban areas, but the government still subsidizes plenty of ways for families to build a house in the suburbs. In short: things could be a lot worse.

The explanation for Merkel’s apparent success is simple. She gave German voters what they value more than anything else: stability. The CDU has always integrated some workers into its coalition, particularly those from rural areas and small workplaces without unions. But, under Merkel, the party became a big-tent party par excellence. After receiving a poorer-than-expected result in 2005, Merkel pivoted to the center, backed away from further labor-market reforms, and spent most of the last sixteen years governing with the Social Democrats (SPD). Her tenure has seen a number of comparatively progressive reforms, including the legalization of gay marriage and the institution of a minimum wage. Though her CDU remains a party of middle-class professionals and capitalists both large and small, under Merkel at least it was able to expand its coalition to include many working-class voters who wanted stable governance and a stable economy.

Her political opponents have taken the lesson to heart and, as the election to choose her replacement nears, even SPD candidate Olaf Scholz is doing his utmost to project himself as worthy heir to her moderate style. Polling numbers suggest that another grand coalition between Merkel’s CDU and the SPD is next to impossible. But whichever combination of parties ends up signing on to the next coalition agreement, chances are it will be another four years of Merkelism — just without Merkel.

Racing to the Middle

Until a few months ago, most observers thought that a “black-green” coalition between the CDU and the increasingly popular Greens was a sure bet to lead Germany into the post-Merkel era. No other constellation enjoyed a stable majority in the polls, and politicians from both parties hinted at the possibility repeatedly. In many ways, the coalition made sense: the CDU stood for stability and continuity, while the Greens promised to green the economy and take the necessary steps to fulfill Germany’s Paris Agreement commitments. Progress, but not too much and not too fast.

Yet both Green front-runner Annalena Baerbock and Merkel’s designated CDU successor, Armin Laschet, have watched their support plummet over the summer. The CDU now hovers not far above 20 percent backing, while Baerbock’s Greens have been trapped in the high teens for over a month — placing a majority for the two parties beyond reach and sending commentators and politicians into a flurry of speculation. Who will have enough votes to govern: A so-called Deutschland coalition (black-red-yellow) between the SPD, the CDU, and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP)? A slightly more progressive variation of the same, excluding the CDU but incorporating the Greens? Or perhaps the longstanding dream of German progressives of (practically) all stripes, a red-red-green coalition including the socialist Die Linke?

One would like to think that this crisis of credibility could be attributed to the catastrophic flooding in western Germany two months ago, or the collapse of the Afghan government only a week after NATO-backed forces withdrew. After all, the North Rhine-Westphalia region, which Laschet has governed since 2017, was hit particularly hard by the floods, and both the Greens and the CDU have been ardent proponents of the German mission in Afghanistan since the outset. Are voters punishing the center for its failure to deal with climate change or oppose US imperialism, and looking for bolder alternatives?

Not quite. Indeed, it would appear that the political center’s present difficulties boil down to little more than bad public relations. After a brief honeymoon as the liberal media’s favored candidate, the Greens’ Baerbock found herself in hot water in early June when a journalist noticed several questionable claims on her official résumé, such as her alleged membership in the UN High Commission for Refugees (which does not have individual members). Revelations several weeks later that her recent book, inspiringly entitled Jetzt (Now), lifted passages from other authors without acknowledgement further cemented her image as amateurish, if not outright dishonest.

Baerbock’s defenders are quick to blame her dip in the polls on sexism — arguing that a man wouldn’t be treated as harshly for such a blunder. That said, only ten years ago a similar plagiarism scandal led to CDU defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s effective banishment from public life. Meanwhile, Franziska Giffey — the SPD candidate for mayor of Berlin, and near-guaranteed victor on September 26 — has emerged unscathed from revelations that her PhD and her master’s thesis were plagiarized. German politicians’ bizarre proclivity for faking academic degrees aside, it would appear that rather than sexism being the problem, some parts of the German political and media establishment remain staunchly opposed to the idea of a Green chancellor, and Baerbock’s own fumbles have given them the necessary pretext to take her down.

That said, the Greens aren’t the only party struggling with an image problem. Not to be outdone by the progressive neoliberals to his left, the conservative Laschet soon upped the ante with his own PR disaster. In mid-July, after flash floods in his home state killed forty-seven people and laid waste to entire towns near the Belgian border, the minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia was filmed joking and laughing with other CDU colleagues while the president of Germany, Frank Walter-Steinmeier, delivered a solemn address commemorating those who lost their lives.

Laschet quickly apologized for what he referred to as an unfortunate “impression that emerged from a conversational situation,” but the damage was already done: voters began turning their backs on him in droves, and even some leaders of his own party openly expressed their disappointment in his performance. At this point, Laschet appears to have no chance of shoring up his position, and will most likely receive the lowest result for a CDU chancellor candidate in history.

Social Democracy Gets Back on the Mat

Perhaps even more surprising than the self-sabotage of the black-green coalition is the space it has opened up for the ailing Social Democrats to emerge from the ashes as the new leader of the moderate center. The SPD’s base of support has been falling apart for two decades, with each national election marking its worst ever, only to be outdone by the next one. Yet all of a sudden, the decline seems to have halted. Led by incumbent finance minister Olaf Scholz, the party’s numbers began ticking upward since Laschet’s unfortunate “conversational situation” made headlines, and have remained stable ever since. Were the election held tomorrow, he would probably emerge as Germany’s next chancellor.

Scholz may not be particularly charismatic or have a noteworthy vision for the country’s future, but he is a well-known face on the political scene, and as finance minister he managed to associate himself with the state’s emergency funding to soften the blow of the COVID-19 crisis. This combination of factors, along with Baerbock’s and Laschet’s homemade crises, have propelled Social Democracy back into the center of German politics — albeit not as a force for renewal, but as stewards of the familiar and the reliable. “No experiments,” the CDU’s informal slogan for the last seventy years, would be just as at home in a Scholz-led government.

Anyone hoping that the SPD under its new, left-leaning leadership around cochairs Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans would use their surprise lead in the polls to build momentum for a red-red-green government will find little to be enthusiastic about. The SPD has made it quite clear that its preferred option would be a coalition with the Greens and the neoliberal hawks of the FDP — whose presence would ensure that any major plans to address the climate crisis would be purely to German capital’s liking. Scholz himself has been at pains to portray himself as the next Merkel, even going so far as to copy her trademark “triangle of power” hand gesture for the cameras (admittedly, he isn’t the only one doing so). Rather than pivot to the left, the SPD seems to think that its best shot at unseating the conservatives is by becoming them.

Indeed, Scholz’s nomination in August 2020, months before the other parties announced their candidates, was already a clear signal that the duo had lost its battle for Social Democracy’s soul and, if not capitulated, at least struck a bargain with the right wing. Elected in late 2019, just after Jeremy Corbyn was routed in the British general election, Esken and Walter-Borjans openly criticized previous SPD leaders’ drift to the right, bandied about the term “democratic socialism,” and expressed interest in governing together with Die Linke. Their endorsement of Scholz, a notorious austerity hawk long-reviled by the party’s left wing as the personification of everything wrong with the SPD, foreshadowed the party’s triumphant return to centrism that is now on full display.

Nevertheless, some initially defended the move as a clever tactic to attract moderate voters, thereby giving the SPD leverage to lead the next government, while the left-wing leadership would ensure that Scholz’s administration would not repeat the attacks on the welfare state pursued by the last SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. As long as Scholz was polling too low for red-red-green to appear as a real possibility, this divisor of labor worked: Scholz distanced himself from Die Linke, while Esken and Walter-Borjans played up their affinities with the Left in a bid to keep up hopes among the party faithful and parts of the trade unions.

In the last month, however, as the SPD surged ahead in polls, party leaders and representatives of its left wing, most notably former Young Socialist chairperson Kevin Kühnert, have either stopped talking about red-red-green altogether or started issuing demands that Die Linke proclaim its fealty to NATO and the alliance with the United States before coalition talks can begin. This is a blatant, and deeply cynical, attempt to nip dreams of red-red-green in the bud before they get out of hand and force the party to fulfill a campaign promise or two. This week, Kühnert even stated his intention to vote no in the referendum on expropriating private Berlin housing corporation Deutsche Wohnen.

When push comes to shove, even the most vocal SPD left-wingers appear to be more concerned with securing their own position in the party hierarchy than with forming a government that could ensure a future for their children and grandchildren.

All Quiet on the Western Front

Irrespective of who ends up running the Federal Republic after Merkel, it seems a safe bet that, in contrast to many of its European neighbors, in Germany the political center will continue to hold for at least a few more years. The country’s broad and comparatively prosperous middle class may switch its colors from CDU-black to green or SPD-red or some combination of the three — but few voters seem interested in taking a leap into the political unknown when so much is at stake.

Indeed, as the Greens, CDU, and SPD fight over who has the blandest, least-threatening candidate on offer, it is striking how little the turbulence in the polls has benefitted any of the parties on the fringes: the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has remained steady at 12 percent, the FDP is nestled comfortably in the low teens, while Die Linke — the other “red” in a possible red-red-green coalition — is gasping for breath, barely above the 5 percent threshold required to reenter parliament.

Die Linke’s stagnation is nothing new. An accumulation of demographic shifts have fragmented its traditional social base, as its core East German electorate either dies off or moves to the right. The party’s erstwhile dream of replacing the SPD in the Western industrial heartlands also failed to materialize, and in recent years it has instead cultivated an incoherent profile as a “party of the movements,” claiming to be the authentic voice of protest in parliament while also eager to join government wherever the opportunity arises. This political incoherence was exacerbated for nine years by an ineffective party leadership that struggled to communicate a clear message to voters or draw media attention.

What is new is that a desperate CDU is invoking a kind of anti-communist rhetoric Germany hasn’t seen in decades, seeking to scare potential SPD and Green supporters by claiming a vote for the center-left is really a vote for a coalition with unreconstructed Communists. This new round of anti-communist “red socks” campaigns has been of no help to Armin Laschet, nor has it damaged the SPD or the Greens any more than their own actions. But it has had the unintended effect of finally bringing some media attention to Die Linke and its new leader, Janine Wissler, after months of coverage that focused largely on Laschet and Baerbock. Paradoxically, while Die Linke’s support is at its lowest since the party’s foundation, for the first time in as many years, observers are speculating quite seriously about the possibility of a red-red-green coalition.

Though such prognoses haven’t improved the party’s miserable standing in the polls, Wissler has proven to be a deft and agile speaker, capable of sparring with right-leaning talk show hosts and conservative blowhards in a way her predecessors could not. Assuming the party manages to hang on to 5 or 6 percent in next week’s election, Wissler will enter parliament as an MP for the first time and likely become the new public face of the opposition. Though the limits of left-wing projects centered around charismatic personalities have been demonstrated more than once in the last few years, given the current state of the German left, her emergence provides at least a glimmer of hope that the next four years won’t be as gray as the last.