Election campaign posters with headshots of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democratic Party's Martin Schulz, Frankfurt, Germany, September 13, 2017.
Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

The nationally televised election debate in Germany earlier this month between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her rival Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) lived up to none of the hype. The “duel,” as it was billed, felt more like polite bickering between an elderly couple. It didn’t shake up the sleepy, substance-bereft contest between the two parties that will conclude on election day, September 24.

In stark contrast, the debate between Germany’s five smaller parties the next night showcased a splendid, teeth-baring brawl. The Greens’ Cem Özdemir fired with both barrels at the Bavarian Christian democrat (CSU) Joachim Herrmann, challenging him on the destructive impact of coal and lecturing him on Christian values, such as cherishing God’s creations. Hermann responded, grinning, “But there are no coal plants in Bavaria!” (The CSU, part of Merkel’s coalition, has fought a ban on coal production Germany-wide.) The liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the socialist Left Party, meanwhile, clashed over rent controls, social security, immigration, nuclear weapons in Europe, and diesel-engine cars. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) charged the government with “dealing with Islamic warlords in Libya,” referring to Merkel’s negotiations to limit refugee flows from Northern Africa.

Indeed, since it’s a virtually foregone conclusion that Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats (CDU) will nail down a fourth term, there is copious speculation over the intriguing coalition options that could form the next government, a process that will depend, largely, on how the smaller parties fare in the election. The vote comes at a defining moment for Europe, as it must grapple simultaneously with rejuvenating the beleaguered EU, managing the euro crisis and immigration, and juggling relations with old and new autocrats. How this plays out for Germany, and Europe as a whole, hinges upon the color of Merkel’s choice of coalition partner, or partners.


The surest bet may initially look like a renewal of the “grand coalition” between the CDU and SPD, which has governed Germany for eight of Merkel’s 12 years in power, and enjoys broad public trust. But it is not guaranteed. Barring a wholly unexpected twist, Germany’s two major parties will repeat their performances in the last election, but lose voters. Polls currently show the CDU capturing 36 percent of the vote and the SPD 23 percent, down five and three percent, respectively from 2013. Behind Merkel’s centrist rule, the two parties cooperated amiably, passing laws favoring tenants’ rights and a minimum wage, addressing the euro crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and overseeing Germany's adoption of renewable energy. Moreover, Germany’s economy has prospered since the late aughts like no other in Europe.

Merkel, not a risk-taker, would prefer another grand coalition, and her party would fall in line behind her. Frustrated SPD supporters, on the other hand, could preempt it, having watched their party shrink and shrink again in the grand coalitions. While in office, the SPD’s profile blurred as the CDU reaped accolades for one classic SPD policy after another. Just after the 2013 vote, the SPD put the final decision on joining a grand coalition to a vote among its members. They conceded only grudgingly when the higher-ups promised they’d stop the party’s hemorrhaging. But they didn’t. It’s thus hard to imagine the rank and file buying the same pledge now.

The SPD’s top brass realize that they must extricate the party from Merkel’s shadow. And Schulz claims he’s running to win, but the SPD has nevertheless floated formidable, “non-negotiable” conditions for participation in a coalition: equal pay for men and women, free education including nursery school, and capping the retirement age at 67. The question is whether the SPD faithful or the CDU/CSU’s right wing would go for it.

If the Social Democrats can’t be coaxed or cajoled, Merkel must resort to a Plan B, which means a coalition with either the Greens, on the left, or the Free Democrats, on the right. All four of Germany’s smaller parties (the fifth, the CSU, runs on the same ticket as the CDU) will likely win seats in the Bundestag, which is further testimony to the decline of the big-tent parties across Europe. But only the Greens and the FDP, both hovering at around eight or nine percent in the polls, could be partners for Merkel. It would only take a shift of a couple of percentage points here or there to make them the kingmaker. Thus, in effect, either small party could find itself in the catbird’s seat, with the prospect of wielding disproportionate clout in defining a coalition.

A screen shows the TV debate between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Martin Schulz of the Social Democratic Party, Berlin, Germany, September 3, 2017.


Germany’s 16 federal states boast a potpourri of mix-and-match coalitions, with the Greens in ten of them. It now no longer raises eyebrows that the countercultural Greens, born of the 1970s protest movements, throw in their lot with conservatives in regional governments, content to temper the Christian Democrats’ worst impulses while seeing progressive priorities in transportation, renewable energy, agrarian reform, and consumer protection turned into policy.

For the most part, these coalitions have worked out admirably. The most renowned is in southwestern Baden–Wurttemberg, where the Greens lead the partnership and the CDU is the junior party. This is due in large part to the Greens’ premier there, Winfried Kretschmann, a folksy, 69-year-old former school principal, whose Swabian pragmatism makes him a perfect match for the conservatives. Kretschmann is the new face of the Greens, one willing to meet the CDU halfway; casting aside green taboo, he even occasionally speaks up for the powerful auto industry, which is based in southwest Germany. Indeed he stands, against the bitter opposition of the Greens’ leftist faction, as a poster boy for the possibility, even desirability, of the “Black–Green” option in Berlin. Should it come to that, Merkel, who praises him, might insist on Kretschmann as deputy chancellor.   

Taking the giant step of forming a national CDU–Green government, however, is another matter. Some of the Greens’ core constituency will abandon the party. The CDU’s more conservative bloc, on the other hand, can’t wait to be rid of the Social Democrats who have helped Merkel shift the CDU dramatically to the left. The Greens, which could pull the CDU even further left, are thus their nightmare.

Yet much speaks for a Black–Green government, too. The chancellor’s legacy will hinge on two issues: climate change and EU reform. As for the former, the Greens would ensure that the CDU sticks to Germany’s environmental goals and perhaps even resumes its status as a world leader in fighting global warming. The Greens say any coalition they join must agree to a timetable for shuttering the country’s 20 dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Merkel, ever the pragmatist, could come around on this, while the Greens would have to accept the restrictive immigration policies that they vehemently criticize.

The Greens are ideal partners to support Merkel in negotiating a deal with French president Emmanuel Macron to fix the eurozone. Macron is convinced, as are the Greens, that shoring up the common currency requires German compromises on completing the banking union as well as harmonizing corporate tax in the EU. Merkel won’t go for a full-fledged monetary union, but a Black–Green administration could help design a union in which members’ money and fiscal policies are more tightly woven together. Macron rightly underscores the necessity of more “convergence,” having floated the idea of a eurozone finance minister and common budget, the latter of which could fund investments to stimulate growth in struggling eurozone countries. Merkel has signaled she could bend that far, but she’d need a willing coalition partner.


In contrast to the Greens, the Free Democrats would tilt the coalition to the right. In the postwar decades, the FDP had been the Christian Democrats’ partner of choice. The two elite, bürgerliche parties governed together in half of the Federal Republic’s ruling coalitions for over nearly seven decades. Within the duo, the Free Democrats were the voice of big business, laissez-faire economics, and a bare-bones social welfare state; the CDU, with Christian charity nearer to its heart, looked out for the have-nots and low-income Germany as long as it didn’t cost too much. The balancing act worked until Merkel’s second term when the CDU and the FDP found one another again after a decade apart. But during the 2009–13 Black–Yellow coalition, the two parties chafed, with Merkel rejecting the FDP’s strident economic proposals in favor of adjustments to the welfare state. The coalition ended in acrimony, with the FDP failing to breach the five-percent threshold for entry into the Bundestag.

Today, the FDP poses as the acceptable face of the German right, in contrast to the AfD, which is an unacceptable partner for all of the major parties. Still, the FDP’s hard-right views on immigration, EU reform, euro policy, diesel, and renewable energy, would make Merkel’s negotiations with Macron and other EU allies all the more complicated, if not impossible. The party’s top candidate, for example, the 38-year-old Christian Lindner, favors forcing Greece out of the eurozone. There can be no pre-made deals with Macron behind the backs of the German people, he warns. It is the one-man-show of Lindner, in his tight designer suits, that has returned the party from its four-year exile and near total ruin. But behind him is virtually no one with either a national profile or experience in government. Moreover, with the FDP, Merkel would be tied to the Germany-first policies that have shifted power in the EU to Germany during her tenure—and which have hurt the European project. If Germany does not alter course, the EU’s deterioration will continue. As for climate, were the FDP’s pro-business precepts followed, Germany could forget hitting the 2020 and 2030 goals on reducing greenhouse gases that it signed up for in Paris in 2015.   


The other options reflect the coalitions in the federal states. Northern-most Schleswig Holstein, for example, has a “Jamaica” coalition of CDU, FDP, and the Greens. (The Jamaican flag is black, green, and yellow.) But the compromises demanded by the right-wing parties would probably be more than the Greens’ could stomach, and vice-versa.

For years now, the three left-wing parties—the SPD, Greens, and democratic socialist Left Party—have batted around the idea of a “Red–Red–Green” alliance, a vision recently bolstered by similar three-way coalitions in Berlin and Thuringia. In the past, the electoral arithmetic has added up to make a left-wing government possible, which probably won’t be the case this time. If all three parties joined forces and pledged to work together, rather than playing the middle in hope of sharing power with conservatives, the left alliance would stand a fighting chance. But this hasn’t happened, and the Left Party’s stance on foreign affairs (no German soldiers abroad, dump NATO) is still too far-flung for the Social Democrats. 

The colors of Germany’s next administration will hinge on a relatively small number of votes. The stakes are very high, which is why the voices of the smaller parties matter. In contrast with Merkel and Schulz, they’re engaging on the big-ticket issues, and their differences are stark. This obliges us to listen closely.

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  • PAUL HOCKENOS is a Berlin-based writer and analyst. His most recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.
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