Governing in challenging times: The task facing Germany's new government-and what it can teach Labour.

AuthorWright, Nick

The formal appointment of Olaf Scholz, leader of the social-democratic SPD, as the new German Chancellor on 8 December 2021 was a genuinely historic moment. It brought to an end the remarkable 16-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel, who, almost from the moment she took office in 2005, had dominated European politics, partly as a result of Germany's unique position as Europe's indispensable power, and partly through her own particular style of political leadership. It also saw the SPD become the biggest party in the Bundestag for the first time since Gerhard Schroder's chancellorship (1998-2005), despite garnering only around 25 per cent of the vote overall. Having been written off by some as an electoral force just a year before, it beat Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) grouping into second place in September 2021's federal elections-a remarkable turnaround for Germany's oldest political party.

Arguably of most political importance for Germany, it marked the entry into office of the first ever three-party government at federal level, with the SPD joined by the Greens and liberal Free Democrats (FDP) in a so-called 'traffic light' (or Ampel) coalition. While such coalitions are not unusual at state level, the big question is how effectively the three parties can collaborate nationally over the next five years. This is clearly a political marriage of convenience that none of those involved would necessarily have wished for. It also brings together parties with clear and obvious ideological dividing lines: the free-market/low tax-orientated and fiscally hawkish FDP seems an awkward bedfellow for the SPD and Greens, two parties that campaigned on avowedly interventionist and progressive platforms.

Pointing to these divisions, some have been quick to suggest that the new coalition may not go the distance. However, it is important to remember that Germany is no stranger to odd governmental partnerships: of the four governments Merkel led, three were so-called grand coalitions with their main rivals, the SPD. This reminds us that for all the potential difficulty of managing the new government, Germany has only ever been governed by coalitions. With a premium placed on maintaining political stability, the modus operandi is to work with others in pursuit of consensus. The big question is whether the impetus for consensus will come at the expense of meaningful policy change, even as Germany is confronted by a range of major domestic and international challenges', most notably Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Coalition in a time of fragmentation

The need for a three-party coalition in the first place emphasises just how messy the outcome of September's elections was. The departure of Merkel after such a long period in office was clearly a factor, with previously loyal voters willing to look elsewhere, particularly as the campaign by her presumptive CDU successor, Armin Laschet, unravelled so spectacularly. However, these elections also took place against the backdrop of the longer-term fragmentation of Germany's political landscape. This has seen the two main parties haemorrhage support over the last two decades (something not unique to Germany)-in 1998, for example, the CDU/CSU and SPD between them took 76 per cent of the vote, compared to just under 50 per cent in 2021. This 'Dutchification', as German political commentators refer to it, means that while it is possible today for the SPD to be the largest party with around a quarter of the vote, the parliamentary arithmetic has become much more complex.

This is demonstrated by the boost in support for both the Greens (who won 14.8 per cent) and the...

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