Two regional polls next month will mark the unofficial start of the German campaign sprint until the federal election on September 26. This in turn will be the opportunity for a new leader to succeed Angela Merkel, after her 16 years as Chancellor of the European Union. The largest country and economy in the Union. In short: This is an important year.
Unfortunately, this also means that international readers interested in European politics will face some confusion and frustration in the months to come. At least that’s my extrapolation from the other two German elections I covered, in 2013 and 2017. How does German politics work, what matters and what doesn’t, and how politics could possibly change : all this is difficult to guess, even less to transmit, in particular to the âAnglo-Saxonsâ.
Technically, the German system is not just confusing. Austria and Belgium, for example, are also federal states with parliamentary systems, proportional representation and many more original conventions. But the political machine in Berlin, thanks to its relative weight in the EU and beyond, is seen as more important to test than, say, that of Vienna.
The difficulties start with the personalities and the style. In the US, UK or France, politicians (with nicknames like ‘Donald’, ‘BoJo’, ‘Jupiter’, etc.) In contrast, leading German politicians tend to be so drab and woolly. you might think they are doing it on purpose.
They could in fact be. Historians such as Timothy Garton Ash of the University of Oxford believe that Germans are wary of the passion and skyrocketing eloquence of politics because it still evokes the Nazi era. âBecause of Hitler, the palette of contemporary German political rhetoric is deliberately narrow, cautious and boring,â he wrote.
The result is politicians like Armin Laschet, the new boss of the center-right Christian Democrats, or Olaf Scholz, the candidate of the center-left Social Democrats. Both have the charisma of an intermediate accountant and more weapons.
However, their breathtaking centrism has another source. This is the centrality of coalitions in the German system. This means that every politician has to collaborate in one way or another with his opponents. Scholz, for example, is part of the Merkel cabinet as finance minister. He therefore presents himself against the Christian Democrats of Laschet and Merkel even though he governs with them. It’s confusing even for the Germans.
In addition, the geometry of the coalition has become more complicated over the last generation. The post-war West Germany had in fact three political blocs: the Christian Democrats and their brother Bavarian party, with the color black; the Social Democrats, in red; and pro-business Free Democrats, with yellow.
In the 1980s, the Environmental Greens joined this system. Then, after reunification, the descendants of the East German Communists entered parliament, later calling themselves the left and choosing a darker shade of red. More recently, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has joined the blues (although it is an outcast that none of the other parties will partner with).
This leaves many potential combinations both in the federal parliament and in the 16 regional assemblies. And this is where German idiocy becomes incomprehensible to foreigners. Slang is full of puns: a red-yellow-green coalition is a traffic light, a black-green a kiwi, a black-yellow-green would be Jamaica (after that country’s flag), and so on. following.
The most important thing to watch out for this year is the next color scheme in the federal government. A red-red-green government – that is, a union of the entire left of the Social Democrats, the Left and the Greens – would amount to a mini-revolution and disaster. But there does not seem to be any mathematical chance, because polls consistently show that the three left-wing parties jointly win less than half of the seats in the Bundestag.
All of this ensures that black center-right, as the strongest bloc, will lead a coalition. And their body language lately has tended to team up with the increasingly popular Greens to replace the Social Democrats. So the next German government could be a kiwi.
There was a time when this combination would have been unthinkable – the original black base were the clergy, the Greens were freedom-loving hippies. Nowadays, however, this coalition would be much less shocking. And it has to do with German federalism.
The second German chamber (but not “superior” in the Anglo-Saxon sense) is the Bundesrat, or “federal council”. Unlike the United States. Senate with its members elected individually, this assembly sits the 16 regional governments. But these administrations are also made up of coalitions, so the color scheme looks even more motley (see below).
As you can see, the big three camps are already collaborating somewhere. They are therefore encouraged to avoid becoming too alienated. In addition, each is present in enough regional governments to form potential majorities in the second chamber, with the power to block bills coming from the Bundestag. This is another reason why policy change in Germany is generally gradual. As any painter knows, a palette in which all the colors are mixed will eventually turn mud brown.
So what will happen as September 26 approaches? The main relay events will be several regional elections, starting on March 14 with Baden-WÃ¼rttemberg (currently ruled by a coalition of kiwis, but with the Greens in the lead) and Rhineland-Palatinate (a traffic light). In theory, these polls could change the balance of power in the Bundesrat, but that seems unlikely.
In practice, they will be considered the first barometers of national mood. But the analysis tends to become obtuse. Every state is different – especially between what was once West and East Germany – and no one is quite sure whether a given regional poll says more about local or federal politics.
Worse yet, there is no equivalent of America’s midterms – a big day with many concurrent elections – that could serve as a reliable indicator. Instead, there is a “drip” of small results, says Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.
My advice is to keep squinting at the overall shade of the national palette. It will always tend to turn mud brown. But a black-green pattern also becomes discernible. As you can see in the Bundesrat graph, the two already live together monogamously in two state governments and in a threesome in three others. They are therefore used to each other.
If the Christian Democrats and the Greens convince voters that they can finally reconcile ecology (the Greens) and the economy (the blacks), they could together rule the times for years to come. They should make a lot of compromises, but that’s what German politicians are doing.
Overall, I would say German policy will become slightly more fiscally accommodating, environmentally hawkish, pro-European, and anti-Russian. As always, there won’t be any sudden movements or big jumps – unless, of course, the world around Germany changes drastically, which cannot be ruled out.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist. He is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.