When, on 26 September, the German election delivered a narrow victory for the Social Democrats (SPD) and at least three possible coalition formations, politicos here in Berlin took a deep breath and braced for many months of talks that might last well into 2022 – prolonging Angela Merkel’s term in office by so long that she would overtake Helmut Kohl to become the longest-serving chancellor along the way. After all, following the 2017 election, it took almost half a year for Europe’s largest economy to get a government – and this year’s election result was even more fragmented.
Yet, after a politically eventful two weeks, it now looks possible and even probable that forming Germany’s next government will be a much faster process this time. One of the three possible coalition options has emerged as by far the most likely and is gaining momentum: a left-liberal “traffic light” government, made up of the SPD, Greens and the conservative-liberal Free Democrats (FDP), so called as the three parties’ colours are red-green-yellow. As I wrote in the New Statesman last week, there are good reasons to be cautiously optimistic about what such a government would mean.
That process started in the hours after polls closed, with the kingmaker Greens and FDP announcing that they would start by talking to each other. The two parties have often clashed: the latter caricaturing the former as a band of illiberal do-gooders who like nothing more than to ban things, the former often dismissing the other as the political wing of climate-trashing privilege. Yet there were always certain similarities. Both represent a disproportionately young, urban and educated electorate, favour liberalising social reforms and tend towards hawkishness on relations with Russia and China. In their post-election encounters they have disinterred such areas of common ground, so much so that they are now referred to as the “citrus” (green-yellow) duo.
The SPD too has had a good fortnight. On the morning after the election, its chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, buoyed by his party’s gains, announced his intention to form a traffic-light coalition. At that point Armin Laschet, his counterpart, who had led the centre-right CDU/CSU alliance to its worst ever result, was still seriously proposing that he might prevent this by luring the citrus duo into a “Jamaica” coalition (CDU/CSU, FDP, and the Greens). In the intervening period, however, a traffic-light government has become more and more likely – with pre-talks last weekend (2-3 October) between the SPD and both the FDP and Greens (separately) going well.
On Wednesday morning the Greens called on the FDP to join them in entering exploratory talks with the SPD on a traffic-light government. Just over an hour later the FDP agreed.
Peter Altmaier, the CDU economy minister, tweeted: “The traffic-light train has left the station.” Shortly afterwards Markus Söder, the CSU leader, echoed the sentiment: “Now a traffic-light coalition is clearly Number One.” On 7 October Laschet bowed to the inevitable and signalled his coming departure as the CDU’s leader. The only chance for the CDU/CSU to lead a Jamaica government now will be if the traffic-light talks fail (and even then the result might well be a Chancellor Söder rather than a Chancellor Laschet).
There is relatively little sign they will, though it is early days: the exploratory talks between the three parties began yesterday (7 October). “After today I’m sure of it: this can work,” the SPD general secretary Lars Klingbeil told the media at the end of the day. Discussions continue on Monday 11 October.
The process will not be easy. While the three parties are broadly committed to progressive social values, they are divided on tax, economics and climate protection. Germany has not had a politically tripartite federal government in recent memory and the only modern attempt to create one – Merkel’s bid to form a Jamaica coalition in 2017 – failed when the FDP walked out. The power relations within such a coalition could bring strains: the “citrus” parties together have more MPs than the SPD, making a Chancellor Scholz’s party a minority within its own coalition. As the Green co-leader Robert Habeck put it: “Germany is currently relearning politics somewhat.”
But it is impossible to miss the aura of seriousness and determination around the talks. All three parties gained MPs at the election, giving them a sense of shared momentum. The FDP and Greens have not closed the door to a Jamaica coalition but a divided and headless CDU/CSU does not make an attractive coalition partner, and public polling shows Scholz is even more overwhelmingly the preferred next chancellor now that the election is over. And a clear sense of the sort of compromises that could unite the three parties is emerging: one widely circulating proposal would involve FDP fiscal hawkishness being reconciled with Green and SPD demands for climate-friendly infrastructure investment by the use of one or more off-balance-sheet investment vehicles.
If such early signs prove accurate, the exploratory talks could give way to formal negotiations before the end of this month and a new government by early-mid December. That would be good news for Germany which, as the Green co-leader Annalena Baerbock put it on 6 October, “cannot afford a long period of limbo”.
It would be good news for Europe, too, where the dramatic clash between Poland’s constitutional court and the EU highlights the list of urgent priorities that require engaged German leadership. And it would be good news for Merkel, who seems impatient to head off into her retirement. Luckily for her, it looks like she will most likely be out of a job by Christmas.