The federal election in Germany, held on September 26, was among the most keenly contested in the country. It was held at a time of crises, including the retirement of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the impact of the pandemic and a downturn in the German economy. In July, floods demonstrated the impact of climate change. These were important issues in the minds of the nearly 60 million voters, 70 per cent of whom voted.
Coalitions are inherent to the German electoral system. Since 2005, when Angela Merkel took charge as Chancellor, all four of her governments have been coalitions. The second term was in partnership with the pro-market Free Democratic Party (FDP). The other three terms saw a “GroKo” or grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD.
In the current election, the SPD emerged as a marginal winner with 206 seats and 25.7 per cent of the vote, while the CDU vote share came down to a record low of 24.1 per cent and it could win only 196 seats. The Greens came in third with a 14.8 per cent vote share, a massive improvement over the 8.9 per cent in 2017. They have 118 seats, their highest tally ever. The FDP has 11.5 per cent and 92 seats. The Bundestag will be unusually large with 735 members in 2021. The focus is on the Greens and FDP. These two parties together have over 25 per cent of the vote and 210 seats. They will decide to back either the SPD or CDU. The mandate appears to be for the SPD and the three parties may try to replicate their “traffic light” government in Rhineland-Palatinate.
The Greens and FDP need to coordinate their policy preferences, keeping in view their relative strengths while negotiating a coalition. Learning from the experiences of 2017, when contradictions between the Greens and FDP led to a breakdown, the two parties have wisely decided to talk to each other before talking to a larger party.
The CDU and SPD have learned to cohabit. The smaller parties remain a problem. The last time the Greens were in power in Berlin was in 1998 with the SPD, when they had only a 5 per cent vote share. With a 15 per cent vote share, they must realise their responsibility is to run a government by adjusting their agenda.
Both the Greens and the FDP have successful partnerships with the CDU. The CDU supports the only Green-led regional government in Baden-Württemberg. The FDP is a partner of the CDU under their Chancellor-candidate Armin Laschet, in the largest state of North-Rhine Westphalia. The Greens are in coalition with the CDU in Schleswig-Holstein. The Greens are part of regional governments in 11 out of 16 states. The FDP is a partner in three. There is no particular pattern to these alliances. Therefore, predicting what they will do in Berlin now is not easy.
In the last few months, public support for the Greens has swung like a pendulum. In mid-2021, they had enough support to surpass the CDU in opinion polls. This was mainly because they moved ideologically to the centre and attracted voters from a diminished SPD and the post-Merkel CDU. This did not last long. The Greens declared their own Chancellor candidate for the first time and produced their best performance. Their vote share, however, reflects a sharp drop in public support compared to four months ago. This should give them a sense of responsibility.
There is an expectation that neglected issues like infrastructure, digital economy, climate-friendly energy policies will be acted on, in addition to a higher minimum wage, better business prospects and faster approval of projects. Providing a sustainable future for young people with stable pensions for an ageing population is a clear challenge.
The Greens need to realise that the climate agenda is important in Germany, but is not the main agenda at the moment. They caused unease among German businesses. The Federation of German Industries said that the Greens don’t trust businessmen and favour a socialistic approach, which will curb German initiative and traditional business acumen. German business got used to Merkel, who spouted the rhetoric of values and did what was practical. Now, it is apprehensive about an SPD-Green coalition. This is where the FDP could play an important role to protect businesses. The party is wary of the Green agenda to expand public debt beyond set limits.
Normally, in German coalitions, the junior partner is assigned the foreign ministry. Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the FDP was FM for nine years under the SPD’s Schmidt. FDP’s Guido Westerwelle was FM under Merkel. Joschka Fischer of the Greens had the ministry under the SPD between 1998 and 2005. If this trend continues and the Greens get the foreign ministry, they are likely to deviate from how Germany has overlooked China’s violation of democracy and human rights for business reasons. The Greens have a more value-based agenda, which could lead to problems with other developing country partners. The FDP can play a better role by supporting German businesses and encouraging overseas FDI in strategic markets like India.
India is looking to build a wider relationship with post-Merkel Germany. The biannual Intergovernmental Consultations Summit is scheduled for later this year. It will be held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the new German chancellor. The meet will be an opportunity to expand the Indo-German relationship, which has been exemplary so far — Germany supports India in the development of metros in several cities, the solar rooftop project, Namami Gange and skill development among other initiatives. However, Merkel was not able to persuade German businesses to focus on India. A strategic push to German business towards India, particularly on China+1 manufacturing hubs using the PLI scheme, would go a long way in fulfilling the potential of the Indo-German partnership.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2021 under the title ‘Gurjit Singh’. The writer is a former ambassador to Germany; African Union Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa and professor, IIT Indore