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15 September 2021

Leader: The choice facing Germany

A two-party coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens would be the best outcome for Germany at a defining moment in its history.

By New Statesman

The departure of Angela Merkel after 16 years as chancellor is a defining moment for Germany and Europe. As our international editor Jeremy Cliffe writes in his cover essay, over her decade and a half as chancellor she has supplied pragmatic, non-ideological leadership and contained a succession of crises, but she has also been too reactive and too reluctant to shape events, grapple with the forces of history and prepare Germany and the continent for the challenges of the future.

Ms Merkel bequeaths to her successor a mighty stack of unfinished business. Germany’s next chancellor must accelerate progress towards carbon neutrality; modernise its infrastructure, state and industrial model; work with European partners such as France to fix the eurozone’s weaknesses; and equip the country for a world where the old comforts of the American security umbrella can no longer be taken for granted. Particularly, in such a world, and in the aftermath of Brexit, Britain too should root for dynamic, progressive new leadership in Berlin.

It has been a dramatic election campaign in Germany. In the spring the centre-left Greens surged; then Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) alliance reasserted its polling primacy; then, more recently, the centre-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) surged past both and into the lead. The New Statesman has been covering it all closely from Berlin, as part of our digital and international expansion. As our coverage and audiences widen, so does our responsibility to offer our readers orientation. So, at this German election, for the first time, we are expressing a preference on the outcome.

The long Merkel years have left her CDU/CSU hollowed out and short of ideas. Its chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet, is weak, in his own party and in the country, and his campaign has been dominated by gaffes and false steps. He represents plodding continuity in a Germany that needs more impetus.

The conservative-liberal Free Democrats (FDP) have more reforming vim but their economic policies – tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit the richest, and dogmatic fiscal hawkishness – would be bad for Germany and Europe, and frustrate the necessary rebalancing and reform of the eurozone.

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The post-communist Left party is a broad spectrum, with both centre-left and hard-line factions. Some of its social and economic policies are reasonable. But its  foreign policy stances are alarming, sceptical of Nato and dismally ambivalent towards anti-Western autocrats. When asked recently “Biden or Putin?” even one of its leading moderates declined to state a preference.

The best options for Germany are the SPD – until recently in deep decline, like the British Labour Party – and the Greens. The former’s policies, such as a minimum wage increase to €12 an hour and 400,000 new homes a year, represent sensible social democratic politics. More open to the investment needed at home and the reforms needed in the wider eurozone, its economic instincts are right for the moment. In Olaf Scholz it has a serious chancellor candidate with a record of effective leadership (he is Merkel’s deputy in the grand coalition). The Greens are superior to the SPD on both the climate and foreign policy (more robust on Russia and China, for example). And while their chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock, lacks executive experience, she has fought a gutsy campaign. Together the two parties represent the best chance of being the new reforming government Germany needs.

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The polling would put them together on about 45 per cent of the Bundestag seats, which would require them to form a three-party coalition with the FDP or the Left to secure a majority. But a couple more points of support for each over the final ten days before the election would get them across the line and make a cohesive, two-party, SPD-Green government possible.

Which of the two should Germans back? Were they neck-and-neck, Green strengths on the climate and foreign policy might well tip the balance. But in a relatively close race it is important that at least one of them secures a clear lead over the CDU/CSU and thus an unambiguous claim to the Merkel succession. Scholz’s party has the best chance of doing that. If the New Statesman had a vote in this election, it would be for the SPD.

[See also: How Olaf Scholz and the SPD could lead Germany’s next government]

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor