Armin Laschet, the Chancellor-candidate of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) was obviously struggling during the August 29th debate. His performance had more than a hint of desperation. Forced attack lines were interspersed with clumsy rhetoric about the “winds of change blowing on our faces”, and embarrassing faux-pas such as “three words: I won’t do it”. Across from him Olaf Scholz, the SPD’s candidate, cut a stark contrast to Laschet’s agitation. Serene verging on the soporific, Olaf Scholz set out to imitate Angel Merkel’s reassuring mannerisms while defending the most radical programme the SPD has put forth since the early 1990s. Scholz’s deft combination of reassurance and radicalism paid off – polls judged him to be the clear winner of the debate, helping him further seize the momentum.
Laschet’s panic going into the debate was understandable: the CDU, which has ruled Germany for the last sixteen years, has seen a dramatic fall in support. While a year ago it was polling at close to 40%, by the time of last month’s debate it had slipped behind the German centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). In the last week, it has fallen further to hit just 20%, trailing the SPD by an average of five points. It is now the SPD’s candidate, Olaf Scholz, who looks most likely to end up as Chancellor. How did we get here?
The CDU’s predicament largely rests in its choice of Chancellor candidate. Laschet has made frequent and serious unforced errors, including laughing during a solemn address by Germany’s president at the remains of a town hard hit by Germany’s recent floods. However, the error in choosing Laschet is not reducible to his poor political skills – but is more fundamental.
Laschet, in many ways, is the CDUs less talented, male version of Hillary Clinton. Like Clinton, Laschet clinched the nomination in a way that drained him of legitimacy, in a perceived stitch up by party bigwigs. He also is strongly identified with continuity at a time in which there is little mood for it. Angela Merkel, like Barack Obama in 2016, is a widely respected and well-liked leader who would in all probability win re-election on the basis of personal popularity, but whose political project is largely perceived as incapable of tackling many of the most pressing issues of the day. In the US in 2016, income inequality and health care were those pressing issues, in Germany in 2021 it is climate, welfare, and infrastructure.
Voters want a change – either left or right. Anything but a tired continuation of the present government by an entitled, less charismatic, less well-liked version of the current leader. This explains the paradox that Germans simultaneously seem to prefer the most left-wing SPD since the early 1990s to Laschet, but in opinion polls also prefer Markus Soder, the hard-right Minister-President of Bavaria, to both Laschet and Scholz.
The CDU’s troubles is dealing with its own version of the predicament centre-left parties have faced across Europe as they struggle to balance the desires of longstanding supporters with the need to win over new social groups. The CDU under Merkel chased centrist voters – with much success – while alienating its base, notably with the 2015 decision to allow close to two million middle eastern refugees into Germany. Having already seen many of its once-loyal voters defect to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the CDU is now finding that its newer, more centrist voters make for fickle supporters.
The SPD, after eight years in government as the CDU’s junior coalition partner, seemed much less naturally placed to benefit from Laschet so awkwardly described as “the winds of change blowing in our faces”. Its success has been the product of a fortunate – largely accidental – balancing act. After two decades of centrist leadership that culminated in a humiliating 20.6% in the 2017 election, the Social Democrats have changed course.
In the 2019 leadership election, Olaf Scholz – the Finance Minister associated with the SPD’s Right – was defeated by two relatively less well known figures from the party’s Left. The new leadership have pushed the party in a more radical direction, but being relatively unknown and unpopular with the electorate, tapped Scholz as their Chancellor-candidate. The result is that the SPD combines a left-wing manifesto with bold policy commitments that can claim the mantle of change (a 12 euro minimum wage, 400,000 new houses per year, ending child poverty, and a faster climate transition), with a leader who is considered deeply reassuring, particularly to the masses of pensioners that are pivotal in German elections.
While the election campaign has been volatile, the SPD is now leading with two weeks to go. It owns the main issues of the campaign, and around 70% of Germans say Scholz is fit to be chancellor, while for both Laschet and Baerbock (the chancellor candidate for the Greens, who struggled to make her mark in a lackluster campaign) this figure is in the low 20s.
Yet, for the SPD winning would only be half the battle. The shape of the next government is uncertain, as no obvious coalition has emerged during the campaign. A “traffic-light” alliance between the SPD, the Greens and the libertarian FDP (so-named for the red-green-yellow colours of the three parties) is viewed by many commentators as by far the most likely. But it is less likely than the consensus holds. The SPD Left – which remains internally dominant – will not let Scholz out of the progressive manifesto commitments, which are an anathema to the FDP. Moreover, any coalition deal will have to be approved by a vote of the SPD’s 400,000 strong membership, who are unlikely to accept sacrificing their priorities if any alternative is possible. It is also worth noting that Christian Lindner, the FDP’s leader, dismissed what would have been a fairly right-skewed CDU-FDP-Green tie up in 2017 as an unacceptable ‘left turn’, suggesting a lack of appetite for a progressive-oriented traffic-light coalition.
Other options such as Red-Green-Red, a coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and the hard-left Die Linke or a rehash of “Grand Coalition” between the CDU and SPD that currently governs Germany – only this time led by the SPD – should be considered more seriously than they have been so far. Should the numbers work for a Grand Coalition, it would likely allow the SPD to implement more of its priorities than a traffic-light coalition, while saving the entire set of Laschet supporters in the CDU from a shameful early retirement.
However, the greatest constraint to a left-wing agenda may not come from the coalition formation process. While the SPD’s remarkable political comeback has made it likely that Germany will end up having a government to the left of its current one, the same internal tensions that have served the SPD well during the campaign and its continued adherence to Germany’s strict fiscal rules may yet end up proving the biggest hurdle to progressive change. Laschet’s winds of change may – policy wise – end up just being a breeze.