Is Germany moving towards a Grand Coalition?
Nerves were raw and tensions were high following the swift break-up of coalition talks between the social democratic SPD and the Green party in the state of Berlin this month.
„No Green will ever forgive the SPD for this” lambasted the furious Green frontrunner Renate Künast, referring to the fact that the sticking point was rather small: the two parties could not find a compromise on the layout of a 3.2km stretch of inner-city motorway. The Greens strongly resisted the proposal on environmental grounds, while the incumbent SPD mayor Klaus Wowereit insisted that the project should go ahead in order to avoid traffic jams.
In actual fact, the reasons for the coalition failure in Berlin were multifarious and mainly local. Nevertheless, the events in the capital have nationwide implications, seen widely as another indication of cooling enthusiasm for a red-green project.
Ever since the national elections in 2009, Germany has witnessed a remarkable renaissance in red-green collaboration – the alliance which governed the country between 1998 and 2005. The SPD and Greens formed coalitions in the populous Länder (states) of North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz: joint press conferences took place, relationships were strengthened and the two parties even successfully nominated a common candidate for the federal presidency.
Yet today the coalition talks in Berlin remind us that a red-green alliance can by no means be taken for granted – even if both partners have a parliamentary majority. Generally speaking, at least two areas of conflict persist. First, many social democrats still do not see the Greens as equals, despite their steady strong results at elections and in the polls. This attitude clearly harks back to the injured pride of a Volkspartei in decline. Unsurprisingly, it is much to the disgust of Green party leaders, one of whom compared the SPD with a parent still treating its adult child as a minor.
Second, it is not only in Berlin that the SPD and the Greens fundamentally disagree on large infrastructure projects: be it the planned subterranean railway station in Stuttgart, the deepening of the river Elbe in Hamburg, or an additional runway at Munich airport. In each case, the Social Democrats push, and the Greens pull. A look at the political response to the Berlin row brings this home: it was wrong to believe that in the 21st century, new motorways, rail routes or power lines were not important any more, SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel retorted to Renate Künast. According to Gabriel, the Greens should simply accept “that the diggers are turning”. However, saying this to a party with its roots in the protest movement of the seventies is one thing, waiting for them to listen and follow the SPD line is another thing.
In addition to red-green disenchantment, the rise of the “Pirate party” as the new kid on the block has brought added pressure to the left: after their success in the Berlin elections in September they are polling up to 9 per cent at federal level, soaking up disillusioned Green, SPD and Left party voters. Each vote for the pirates potentially weakens the prospect for a centre-left government in Germany: as the pirates are political greenhorns who lack positions on major issues, a red-green-orange coalition can be ruled out categorically.
The same remains true for a red-red-green coalition at federal level. In the post-communist Left party ‒ as current discussions ahead of their major party conference show ‒ the proponents of a hardcore opposition strategy (mainly from western Germany) seem to be prevailing against the pragmatists (mainly from the east). Any hope that the Left party could be ‘domesticated’ in the national parliament has been shown to be illusory.
With the red-green alliance stumbling, the pirates siphoning voters from across the left camp, and the Left Party remaining on the sidelines, it looks as if the left may once again have trouble converting a majority of votes into a parliamentary majority. At the same time, the conservative-liberal coalition remains in a devastated condition. Therefore, the return of a Grand Coalition in Germany has become a little bit more likely. This would be to the delight of German voters: according to a recent survey, 41 per cent of all voters and 57 per cent of social democratic supporters consider a coalition of the Angela Merkel-led Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union and the social democratic SPD as the best solution for the future of the country.
This essay was originally published here.