Germany’s new government is in trouble after barely six months in office. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Social Democratic Party are sinking in the polls and losing regional elections. What comes next?
HUMILIATION IN THE NORTH
On 8 May, voters in the northern German Bundesland (federal state) of Schleswig-Holstein delivered a humiliating blow to Germany’s governing party, the Social Democrats (SDP), awarding them 16 per cent of the votes, down 11.3 per cent from the last elections in 2017. It was their worst performance ever.
This is the party of Chancellor Olaf Scholz. A fresh man at the helm, who started his term only six months ago after a euphoric electoral victory no one had expected six months before that. Back then, around April 2021, all bets had been that the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) might form a governing coalition with the Greens, who at the time were at the peak of their popularity.
When the chancellor’s party wins, analysts usually say it benefited from a ‘chancellor bonus’. But when it loses, it is no longer a regional matter. Pundits then declare there is ‘discontent with the government’. That discontent, it seems, was colossal in Schleswig-Holstein; 146,000 voters abandoned the SPD. Many of them (62,000) decided to vote for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Greens (44,000).11 www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article238526565/Landtagswahl-Schleswig-Holstein-SPDWaehler-laufen-in-Scharen-zur-CDU-ueber.html. As a result, these two parties now have a two-thirds majority in the regional parliament. The CDU, in opposition at the national level, but in power in Schleswig-Holstein, emerged as the clear winner, while the Greens were also able to strengthen their position. A so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition (CDU, SPD, and the liberal FDP) had governed the Bundesland since 2017. Although negotiations started between these three parties for a continuation of that constellation, in the end the CDU and the Greens decided to go on without the Liberals.22 www.ndr.de/nachrichten/schleswig-holstein/CDU-und-Gruene-setzen-Koalitions-Verhandlungen-in-SH-fort,koalitionsverhandlung128.html.
It was bad news for the SPD, and a bad omen for the much more important regional election in the Bundesland of North-Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) only one week later. This is the biggest Bundesland of all, and a bellwether for the whole country. Whatever happens here has an impact on national politics.
HUMILIATION IN THE WEST
Here, too, the SPD suffered a crushing defeat. Here, too, the result was the worst ever for the party in this Bundesland: 26.7 per cent, down 4.8 per cent from the last elections in 2017. In both states, the liberal FDP also lost considerably. In both states, the Greens enjoyed spectacular success: 18.2 per cent in NRW, up 11.8 per cent from their result in 2017, their best score ever.
In both states, the CDU won decisive victories: 35.7 per cent in NRW, 2.8 per cent more than in 2017. It was a muchneeded triumph for the party itself, after its humiliating defeat in the national elections in 2021.
And for two party leaders in desperate need of victory, it came as a great relief. Friedrich Merz, the CDU’s new chairman, had to show he could find a path that might eventually lead the party back to power. The CDU’s improved results in both federal states have strengthened his position.
For NRW’s Prime Minister Hendrik Wüst, even more was at stake. He took over from his predecessor Armin Laschet only in 2021. Laschet was the CDU’s luckless candidate in the national elections that year, and had wanted to show that for him, it was victory in that election, or nothing—he would not hold onto his job in NRW as a fallback position. Wüst, therefore, came in as an unelected prime minister, and after the CDU’s defeat on the national level, there was a real danger that they might lose power in NRW as well. His success brings much more than just simple survival. He might become an alternative to Friedrich Merz for the job at the top of the party, with an eye on the next national elections. These two men represent completely different political formulas. Merz aims to give the party a sharper profile, seeking loud confrontation with the governing coalition on a range of issues. Wüst operates like Merkel and Laschet. He aims to integrate society rather than divide it, to appeal to all voters rather than ‘just’ centrists and conservatives. It might work better on the national level than Merz’s combative style. Time will tell.
Having said that, the CDU risked losing power in NRW. Their coalition partner, the liberal FDP, collapsed, dropping by 6.7 per cent to score only 5.9 per cent of the vote. That meant the coalition of the CDU and FDP in NRW was finished.
But, as in Schleswig-Holstein, the CDU and the Greens decided to form a strong coalition without the Liberals.33 https://newsrnd.com/news/2022-06-10-cdu-and-greens—coalition-in-nrw-on-the-home-straight.S1Z88OKlK5.html. Together they have 115 of the 195 seats in the regional parliament. This has huge implications on the national level. The Greens could have opted for a regional version of the red–green–yellow coalition that is in power at the national level. The SPD, Greens, and Liberals together control a total of 107 seats in the NRW parliament, a stable majority. If they had wished to show that they remain strong nationally, that would have been a logical step to take. But it would have demanded some degree of self-sacrifice from the Greens. For them, the two elections have led to some serious soul-searching: are they the last man standing on a sinking ship of the governing coalition in Berlin? If so, might it not be better to jump and make a deal with the CDU? In the end, they did. It does not bode well for the future of the German government. The SPD and FDP lost catastrophically in both regional elections, and that means that at the moment, it is the Greens, and the Greens alone, who are keeping the coalition ship afloat in Berlin. That they ditched the SPD and FDP on the regional level means that they will not hesitate to do so in Berlin either, if the occasion arises.
There is much food for thought here. Before last year’s national elections, a CDU–Green coalition had long seemed attractive and logical in the eyes of most analysts. The leaders of both parties had patiently worked in that direction for years. Then, to everyone’s surprise, the SPD won the elections and Olaf Scholz became Chancellor at the head of a ‘traffic light’ left–green–liberal coalition: SPD, Greens, FDP.
It was strange because he really had not campaigned at all and the SPD had seemed to be in a historical downward spiral. The party itself had become ever more leftist, ever more radical, ever more removed from the realities of the lives of everyday citizens. Scholz himself, however, stood out as a traditional pragmatist who had little sympathy for any kind of ideology.
For German voters, these elections were a moment of mental anguish: ‘Mutti’, Angela Merkel, the perennial chancellor who had governed for 16 years and had somehow always given most Germans the feeling that all was well (even when it was not), had decided to quit politics. What now? Laschet, her designated successor at the helm of the country, was a bleak figure. Scholz, though politically almost the exact opposite of what his leftist, radicalized SPD stood for, turned out to be the figure most similar to Merkel, at least in the eyes of many voters. Taciturn, pragmatic, and a technocrat little inclined to ever say anything spectacular, while suggesting without many words that there was a captain at the tiller: himself.
SCHOLZ: AN OPTICAL ILLUSION?
What if it was a fluke? This is the question on all minds now in Germany. What if Scholz’s ascent to power in 2021 was the result of a singular moment in the nation’s collective psyche, a moment of despair that led voters to seek succour, grasping at a figure who seemed to represent some sort of stability? What if the deeper undercurrents in Germany’s society do indeed favour a solution where Conservatives and Greens lead the country?
Scholz’s victory in 2021 was the result not of his political acumen, but of disastrous mistakes committed both by the Greens and the CDU. Laschet, the CDU’s top candidate, had been caught by TV cameras, laughing heartily while visiting the scene of Germany’s greatest natural catastrophe in decades, a flood that had cost 133 lives. Analena Baerbock, the Green’s top candidate, had made a whole series of unfortunate public statements, including—but not limited to—several embellished claims as to her academic achievements, and numerous plagiarized passages in an autobiography which, as it turned out, she had not even written herself, and had apparently not even bothered to at least have fact-checked by her team.
And so voters punished both the Greens and the CDU. Scholz came out at the top without much merit of his own. As chancellor, he offered a weak start and went downhill from there. The new government’s coalition contract was a political fantasy that formulated strategic goals such as a ‘feminist foreign policy’ and the de facto abolition of Germany as a nation state, transforming the EU into a federal state.
This soon collided with reality when Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February. How would a ‘feminist foreign policy’ react to this? Analena Baerbock was the new foreign minister.
As it turned out, the Greens managed the crisis far better than Scholz. They were quick to demand radical sanctions against Russia. Robert Habeck, the new minister for the economy, had demanded that Germany send arms to Ukraine even a year before the war started. The Greens, rooted in a pacifist ideology, were not ready for his realism, and in the electoral campaign he had to stop saying such outrageous things. Now, however, it was the Greens who pushed for sending heavy weapons to Ukraine. Scholz waffled and delayed, and at first did not want to send arms at all. He hesitated for so long, and said so little at a time of crisis, that public opinion polls indicated a collapse in his popularity.
Then, under pressure from the Greens and the CDU opposition, from German public opinion itself, from Poland, and from the USA, he announced a strategic U-turn: Germany would spend ‘100 billion euros’ on rearming, and would immediately send a plethora of weapons to Ukraine. That was the one moment when he was able to regain a little ground in the opinion polls.
But then the government continued to delay and hesitate. Promised weapons did not arrive in Ukraine, when they did it was less than promised, and when Ukraine asked for specific weapons they needed, they were told Germany had none to give. So they turned to the German weapons industry, which replied that it should be no problem at all. In view of apparent obstruction by the German government, the Ukrainians decided to simply buy German weapons from the companies that produced them, rather than asking Berlin for help.
And to obtain the necessary ministerial authorizations for arms exports, Kyiv wisely refrained from turning to the ministry of defence, led by an SPD minister. Instead, they turned to the ministry for the economy, led by Habeck, who immediately authorized the deal.
Scholz continued his slalom of promising things which went unfulfilled, or were only fulfilled after great delay. Germany agreed to send modern Gepard antiaircraft tanks. Then it turned out they could not find any ammunition for them. The 100 billion euros for the army may turn out to be more political communication than real money. Time will tell how much of this sum will actually be used to add to the army’s capabilities, and when. In any case, most experts say that ten times as much is needed after decades of gutting the army.
The reality is that the SPD have built a foreign policy strategy rooted in good relations with Russia ever since the 1970s (back then, of course, it was still the Soviet Union). They are loath to abandon it. Much like Hungary, their basic assumption is that Russia will always be there, will always have cheap gas, and will always be a market for German industry. Why ruin all that, when the current war is bound to end at some point, but Russia will still be there?
In contrast, the Greens have no such history of strategic relations with Moscow, and were able to react nimbly to the crisis. They even managed a radical U-turn in the face of their pacifist ideology. The FDP emerged as unprincipled opportunists. The Ukrainian ambassador to Berlin published an article in which he depicted his meeting with German politicians as the war began. The Greens, he wrote, were the best partners in town, the SPD beholden to Russia, and the FDP hypocrites, politely smiling even as they told the ambassador that Ukraine would lose anyway. So, why help?
All of that had an impact on public opinion. No one now seems interested in a ‘feminist foreign policy’ or an idealized European federal state. Reality has taken over. And the two parties who responded to the new situation in the most decisive way, according to opinion polls, are the CDU and the Greens.
That opens a new strategic horizon: back to the future. What seemed to be the future a year or two ago—a stable coalition of the CDU and the Greens at the national level—may still come to pass, with a four-year delay. Time will tell.
- 11 www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article238526565/Landtagswahl-Schleswig-Holstein-SPDWaehler-laufen-in-Scharen-zur-CDU-ueber.html.
- 22 www.ndr.de/nachrichten/schleswig-holstein/CDU-und-Gruene-setzen-Koalitions-Verhandlungen-in-SH-fort,koalitionsverhandlung128.html.