Continuity rather than real change is the most likely outcome of the election in Europe’s most powerful state, writes Sean Ledwith
Polls over the weekend suggested a narrow win for the centre-left Social Democrats going into yesterday’s election. For once, the pollsters got it right as Olaf Scholz’s SPD pipped the ruling CDU of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. The former picking up 25.7% of the vote and the latter just over 24%. The narrowness of the win means Merkel will remain in power, possibly for months, as the two dominant parties try to hammer out deals with the smaller parties to secure a new coalition.
The fragmentation of 21st century German politics means some form of three-way coalition is the most likely outcome of the imminent political haggling, with the national media speculating on colour-coded options such as the ‘traffic light’ -the SPD red, Greens and yellow for the free market FDP- or ‘Jamaica’ for the black of the CDU with the same two possible partners.
Much of the commentary leading up to the election has focused on how the main candidates have deliberately avoided any sense of breaking with Merkel’s ‘steady as she goes’ image. The result is ground-breaking, nevertheless, as it represents a step-change from the historic pattern of German elections in which the SPD and CDU between them would hover up 70-90% of the vote. The calamitous performance of Merkel’s own party, in particular, highlights the fragility of Germany’s reputation as the bulwark of Europe. Merkel has dominated Europe’s most powerful state and economy since her accession to power in 2005 and has become the go-to figure of reassurance for centrists as other figures such as Obama, Cameron and Macron have retired or receded from prominence.
Merkel has presided over the German economy’s consistently strong quarterly growth rates in the post-2008 period as other economies such as the UK and France have laboured to recover from the impact of the financial crash. She also evolved into the pre-eminent enforcer of neoliberal orthodoxy in the EU as member states such as Greece and Portugal have been hammered into line with demands from Berlin and Brussels for the implementation of savage austerity and the contraction of public sector provisions. Merkel has ensured that as Europe’s most vulnerable citizens have been locked into poverty at the outer edges of the bloc, the rich in her own country have flourished with a doubling of the number of German billionaires during her tenure.
She has also supervised Germany’s gradual rehabilitation on the global stage, with soldiers from the Bundeswehr participating in the now defunct Nato occupation of Afghanistan. A German naval frigate is currently part of the Anglo-American fleet that is on a provocative tour of the Indo-Pacific, recklessly heightening tensions with China.
Merkelism without Merkel
Sunday’s win for the centre-left leader, Olaf Scholz, might seem like a progressive shift in German politics. However, as Merkel’s loyal deputy in the outgoing parliament, the SPD leader actually represents a continuation of her centrist agenda in domestic and foreign policy, rather than a decisive break to the left. Scholz’s neoliberal credentials are depressingly evident as he has carefully cultivated an image of bland stolidity that would make Keir Starmer green with envy.
As Mayor of Hamburg in 2017 he sent in riot police to use excessive force against demonstrators at the G20 summit that year. He also served in the last SPD government of Gerhard Schroder from 1998 to 2005 that implemented the ‘Agenda 2010’ programme of Blairite-style welfare cuts. Scholz also committed himself throughout the campaign to maintaining Merkel’s remilitarisation of German politics, boasting that he would comply with the Nato demand for 2% of GDP to be designated for the armed forces. Scholz in many ways is offering ‘Merkelism without Merkel’. He has even taken to copying her trademark hand gestures to appeal to conservative voters.
The defeat for Merkel’s CDU is largely a reflection of the incompetence of its candidate this time round, rather than a resounding vote of confidence in Scholz. Armin Laschet has committed a sequence of blunders that undermined the CDU’s chances of sustaining the Merkel legacy. As Minister-President of the Rhineland -Palatinate, he presided over the calamitous failure to prepare adequately for the flooding in July that left nearly 200 people dead in Northwest Germany. To compound that lamentable performance, Laschet was seen laughing on camera at an event to remember the victims. Many centrists will see Scholz as a safer and more experienced pair of hands for German capitalism than the buffoonish Laschet.
The German Greens performed creditably this time round, picking up 15% of the vote. At one point earlier this year, however, they looked on course for an even bigger electoral breakthrough, with polls putting them ahead of the big two parties. A series of personal gaffes by the leader, Annalena Baerbock, however, put paid to those aspirations and she might settle now for being part of a Scholz-led coalition.
Regrettably, the radical edge of the German Greens is a thing of the past as Baerback was an enthusiastic supporter of the German military presence in Afghanistan and is also committed to an increased financial commitment to Nato. The Green leader frequently indulges in the type of anti-China and anti-Russia rhetoric more usually associated with politicians of the right.
Unfortunately, the German left party, Die Linke, was squeezed by the modest surges for the SPD and the Greens, slipping below the 5% mark and losing several effective parliamentarians, including Christine Buchholz. The far right AfD also lost votes compared to 2017 but remains a potent threat, especially in the territories of former East Germany. The German left will need to regroup quickly, whatever party they are in, to prevent the far right further exploiting the fragmentation of politics in the Bundestag.