Garvan Walshe: Merkeldammerung. Germany’s polls put the Greens within striking distance of government.

1 Apr

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party

No leader gives up the job entirely on their own terms, but Angela Merkel, who will step down as Chancellor after what will be at least fifteen years in power, came closer than most.

She had the skill to keep the coalition of voters behind her Christian Democratic Union (which governs with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union) sufficiently broad to dominate German politics for a decade and a half. She’ll leave office as one of the great centre-right Chancellors of modern Germany, along with Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl.

Known for waiting for what seems to everyone too long before making darting radical jumps, Merkel overcame the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and even dealt effectively with the first wave of the Covid pandemic.

She saw off rivals internal (Wolfgang Schäuble) external (the AfD) and a man best described as standing just inside the tent, peeing in (Friedrich Merz).

Yet she was unable to find a successor. Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg imploded in a plagiarism scandal, Ursula von der Leyen’s mediocre efforts at the defence ministry would be repeated at the European Commission, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer proved the dampest of squibs, while Armin Laschet was left holding the Coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination programme foundered.

Like every other centre-right party in proportional electoral systems, the CDU/CSU is struggling in a fragmenting political landscape. Party activists worry that she’s losing votes to her right, to the AfD (or, in a more liberal direction, the FDP), while larger numbers of voters defect to the Greens, who have governed impressively in Baden Württemburg (in coalition with the CDU), and who also increased their seats at the CDU’s expense in Rhineland-Palatinate.

The “Union” has a backup plan in the form of Markus Soder, the leader of the Bavarian CSU, who could replace Laschet as the centre-right’s Chancellor candidate in September’s elections, but he is now also suffering from the terrible vaccination campaign and PPE procurement corruption scandals. The Union is now polling in the mid twenties, ten points down on the beginning of the year. This doesn’t look like an election where “more of the same” is a winning formula.

The latest opinion polls have narrowed the gap between the CDU/CSU and the Greens to less than five points, and if the trend continues the Greens could even top the poll in September.

This opens up two new possibilites for post-election Germany. Until this month, it had seemed likely that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Greens, headed by a Union Chancellor, would have been the only way to avoid letting either the AfD or the post-communist Linke into national government.

But the green surge increases the options. A “traffic light” coalition, between the Greens, SPD (the social democrats, whose colour is red) and the liberal FDP (yellow), or a Jamaica coalition (after the Jamaican flag, because the CDU’s colour is black) involving Greens, Union and FDP would also add up to a majority. In these scenarios it is the Greens, not either of Germany’s two traditional parties, who could choose who to form a government with.

Germany’s Greens started as a conventional green party emphasising environmental politics, but have evolved into a centre-left formation without the industrial baggage of the SPD, which allows them to take clearer stances against polluting industry or in favour of immigration and accommodating refugees.

If their representation in the Berlin city government is radical (favouring rent control, for example) their adminsitration in prosperous Baden Würtemberg, home to much of Germany’s car industry, has been decidedly more pragmatic. Their independence from German industrial politics has also led them to take stronger stances against Putin’s Russia (remember that Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former Chancellor, serves as chairman of Rosneft), and Orban’s Hungary.

A green-led government would, perhaps astonishingly, tilt German geopolitics closer to that of the United States. Transatlantic friction over Russia’s Nordstream pipeline to Germany, which both the Greens and Washington are against, would disappear. Leading the govenrment would, however, pose problems for the party in relation to nuclear weapons, with which much of its membership is deeply uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, the German Greens, which hse co-leaders, Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock, would pursue international policy in step with the UK’s focus on addressing climate change, and upholding international human rights norms against Moscow and Beijing.  Nonetheless, they are strongly pro-European, and a Green-led German government would put renewed energy behind deeper European integration.

In September, the test for the Greens will be whether they can provide the right combination of reasssurance and change for an electorate that prized the stability and integrity Merkel provided them, but is now ready to give the system a bit of a jolt.