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14 March 2021

The spectre of a left-led “traffic light” coalition is rising in Germany

Regional elections deliver a blow to Angela Merkel’s party.  

By Jeremy Cliffe

In my column in this week’s New Statesman, I wrote of the modest but underestimated chance of a left-leaning “traffic light” government emerging from the upcoming German federal election on 26 September. The term refers to a coalition containing the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the centre-left Greens and the right-liberal Free Democrats (FDP), so-called because their colours are red, green and yellow. To be sure, it remains most likely that Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) will continue to lead Europe’s largest economy, probably in coalition with the Greens. But two important state elections in Germany’s south-west today reinforced the outside chance of the traffic-light option.

At the time of writing, the existing traffic-light (“Ampel” in German) coalition in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz led by the SPD’s Malu Dreyer looks certain to continue governing; the three parties are on track to win 55 of the 101 seats in the state’s parliament, up from 51 seats. Also at the time of writing, the Green minister-president of the state of Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, has not just increased his party’s vote-share but also now has a choice between continuing his coalition with the CDU, his junior partner, or switching to an Ampel of his own, with the SPD and FDP as his junior partners.

The two states were both once long-time CDU strongholds. The party governed Rheinland-Pfalz from 1946 until 1991 and the state produced the party’s arguably most iconic chancellor, Helmut Kohl. The CDU governed Baden-Württemberg from 1953 to 2011, when a surge in support for the Greens following the Fukushima nuclear disaster ushered the Greens, and Kretschmann, into power. The party’s historically poor showing in both states adds to the sense of gloom surrounding it in the wake of Germany’s dismally slow vaccine roll-out, lockdown fatigue, Merkel’s impending departure and several corruption scandals over mask procurement that have erupted in recent weeks.

That is pushing down the CDU’s results in national polling. While the party remains comfortably in first place, the surge that it enjoyed last year when Germany’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was well regarded at home and abroad is dissolving. While its newly elected (and so far underwhelming) leader Armin Laschet was not substantially responsible for the results in Rhineland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg, many in the party with pre-existing doubts about him are wondering: is he really the man to pull the CDU out of its funk? The CDU and its Bavarian partner the Christian Social Union (CSU) must soon decide on their joint candidate to succeed Merkel as chancellor. Today’s results and the spectre of an Ampel coalition make Markus Söder, the CSU leader and minister-president of Bavaria, and a more versatile and charismatic figure than Laschet, a tempting alternative.

[See also: Armin Laschet is elected leader of Germany’s CDU]

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Whichever of Laschet or Söder leads the CDU/CSU into the federal election will probably become German chancellor. Current polling gives the party a solid lead and a comfortable majority with the Greens or a narrower one with the SPD in yet another “grand coalition”. The Ampel parties are together a little short of majority territory, which under the German electoral system begins at around 47 per cent of vote-share; the Greens are around 18-20 per cent, the SPD around 15-17 per cent, the FDP around 7-8 per cent.

But it does not take a huge leap of imagination to see a lacklustre and scandal-plagued CDU/CSU losing, say, five points of support to those parties. And once the numbers add up, the politics may well do the rest: the SPD is already pushing an Ampel coalition as a means to bring about a left-led government without the help of the Left Party (controversial as it descends from the East German communist party); the Green grassroots would broadly prefer a left-wing government to one led by the CDU/CSU; and the FDP, though it has flirted with right-populism in recent years, also needs to prove its seriousness as a governing party and find a clearer identity in German politics. An Ampel – whether led by a chancellor from the Greens or the SPD – could thus work for all three parties.

Tonight’s result confirmed that such an eventuality is now firmly on the agenda. Interviewed by the public television channel ZDF, the SDP’s Dreyer was asked four questions. All four concerned the chances of applying her Ampel model from Rheinland-Pfalz to the federal government. On the post-poll TV discussion between representatives of all parties, the FDP’s Volker Wissing (Dreyer’s deputy in Rheinland-Pfalz and the party’s new general secretary, widely considered a likely broker of an Ampel coalition at the federal level) was even drawn into discussing the topics, like a wealth tax, where the Ampel parties might disagree in coalition talks. In the CDU/CSU alliance, senior figures are alarmed at the possibility of an Ampel majority, and a subsequent deal, that could put them out of power after September’s election.

Big questions remain. Will Laschet or Söder lead the CDU/CSU into the election as the alliance’s candidate to succeed Merkel? What role will the pandemic – with a third wave now rising in Germany – play in September’s vote? Whom will the Greens choose as their chancellor candidate and how will he or she fare? But we can at least be sure of one thing: this will be the most fascinating German election in a long time.

[See also: As the Merkel era approaches its end, the German left has several paths to the chancellery]