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Krautsource - Post-election mind games

Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl
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Colorful: The election results show that six party groups are going to be in the German parliament, the Bundestag. That number has doubled since the 1980s. (Source: ARD)
Colorful: The election results show that six party groups are going to be in the German parliament, the Bundestag. That number has doubled since the 1980s. (Source: ARD)
Something remarkable happened last night during the panel of the top candidates of all parties aired by the public broadcasters - the Germans call it “round-table of elephants”. Armin Laschet, whose conservative CDU had just lost more than one fourth of its share of votes, implied that he could form a government. Laschet and Christian Lindner, leader of the liberal FDP, went on the offensive and seemed to offer the Greens a so-called Jamaica-coalition, which combines the three parties’ colors black, green and yellow as the Jamaican flag does.
This came across as a more than a bit patronizing in Laschets case, as the losses are mainly ascribed to his chaotic campaign and personality (a stereotype which he seemed to confirm on Sunday by folding his ballot wrongly so that others could see what he had ticked off, coming close to making his own vote illegal).
The German system, in which one votes primarily for parties rather than people, makes it possible to have a chancellor almost nobody wants. While the numbers add up for a Jamaica coalition - the Conservatives still won almost a quarter of all votes - it would be a strange outcome.
This became obvious only one day later, when Laschets surprising power move fizzled out. Even top politicians of his own party signaled they do not feel like he should become chancellor. They seem to prefer being the biggest opposition party to ruling after winning less than 25 percent with this candidate (CDU politicians are used to 30 percent or more in national elections). Everybody can see now: Laschet has failed to keep the party strong without chancellor Angela Merkel as its head.
But what about the winner of the election, Olaf Scholz?
A winner with a problem
Scholz and his party, the Social Democrats, only won 1.6 percent more than the CDU. But Scholz is in a better position than Laschet now, as everybody is aware he is the most liked candidate who also won the most votes. Scholz was the reason many people voted for the SPD, saving the party, which had seemed to go the way of other once powerful Social Democratic parties in Europe: towards a slow and painful death. Laschet on the other hand was the reason many people did not vote for the Conservatives. Not even his own party appears to keep up the illusion that he and Scholz are on eye level. However, things are not that clear-cut for Scholz, either. I would not put all my money on him being the next chancellor yet.
Since the Left Party only barely made it into parliament with disastrous numbers, a SPD-Green-Left coalition is mathematically impossible. Scholz really only has one option: fuse a coalition with FDP and Greens. Such a so-called traffic light coalition - the three parties’ colors are red, yellow and green - has never been formed on the national level. But it seems the most likely solution now, as it is the one solution without Armin Laschet. Another term under SPD and CDU - this time without Angela Merkel - has been ruled out by both parties. A vast majority of Germans would consider it a complete stasis of the country.
However, there is a dilemma. Scholz could work with both Greens and FDP. But the Greens’ policies fit more neatly into a Jamaica coalition than those of the FDP fit into a traffic light coalition. Regulation and higher taxes are central to the Green and Social Democratic plans for climate change and against inequality.
That is a problem for the market liberal FDP, which would have much preferred a coalition with Conservatives. For this, they would have teeth-gnashingly accepted the Greens with whom they only agree on civil rights: abortion, drugs and protecting people against state surveillance. But with the SPD as the strongest party in the mix in addition to the Greens, the FDP would have to fight very hard to save the low-tax policies their wealthy base craves. This would be much easier with the Conservatives, who propose policies more compatible with those of the FDP.
Tense talks ahead
Still, Greens and FDP have declared that they are going to talk to each other first, despite “polarization” between them, as Christian Lindner put it. These talks are not only going to be about policy plans and ideology. They will also be about who is going to be the third and biggest partner of the two in a coalition, as this question is decisive for each of their strategies in further talks.
The mentioned challenges leave open the possibility that the talks might collapse. This might narrow the options down to “Jamaica”, which would mean that the loser Laschet becomes chancellor of Germany.
One scenario: CDU and FDP might leave climate policy and the foreign ministry to the Greens, but keep them out of most domestic policy areas. For the two business-friendly right-of-center parties, this would have an additional advantage: They could blame climate regulations they know are necessary, but might anger business people and car owners, on the Greens.
If Jamaica happens at the end, the Greens themselves would have some explaining to do, though. While party elites of CDU and Greens have slowly converged over the last decade, many Green voters want to keep Laschet from the chancellory and despise the FDP. Anti-capitalistic impulses remain strong within the Green base even though many supporters have themselves become well-of over the decades.
But the fact remains: For many Greens, this is the time they have been waiting for. Climate change might not be the most talked about issue in four years, when the next election is scheduled.
This is the Green moment. They will not blow their chance to power easily. But they might get into a situation where accepting Armin Laschet is the price of that power.
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Jannis Brühl
Jannis Brühl @jbruehl

This is my newsletter about German politics and history for an international audience. Why stay national and not take journalism to the global stage? Expect a lot of Realpolitik, plenty of Zeitgeist and maybe even some Schadenfreude.

I have been a journalist for more than a decade, working in New York City, Berlin and Cologne, and now head the technology news team at a major German media house in Munich. I hold a Masters degree in Political Science and American Cultural Studies. And I like rap music.

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