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The Post-Merkel Return of German Ideologies

After years of consensus, a new era of division is set to roil German politics at home and abroad.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and director of the European Institute at Columbia University.
A meeting at the Bundestag in Berlin occurs.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is reflected as German Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz listens while she delivers a speech to parliament in Berlin on March 21, 2018. TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images

In what may prove to be her last speech to the Bundestag, last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to voters to give their vote to Armin Laschet to be her successor as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. For Merkel as chancellor to speak in such a partisan manner from the rostrum of the parliament was unusual. It is indicative of her party’s desperation, which has slumped to historic lows in opinion polls. In some ways, even more revealing than her belated support for Laschet was the dark fear Merkel conjured up. German voters should back Laschet, she urged, because the alternative would be a government of the left uniting the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and Die Linke.

Laschet himself and Bavaria’s Markus Söder, his rival for national CDU leadership, have since doubled down, warning not just of Die Linke, a party formed out of remnants of Germany’s Socialist Unity Party and the West German left. They also have also called into question the SPD’s own post-war history, reminding voters of the SPD’s opposition back in the 1950s, its alliance with France that formed the European Union, West Germany’s original membership in NATO, and the SPD leadership’s hesitancy in 1989 when it came to German reunification.

What this reminds us of is once upon a time, Germany knew a left-right divide. Socialists squared off with hawkish Christian Democratic cold warriors. Accusations of complicity with communism or Nazism flew thick and fast. The condition of Merkel’s long rein was the repression of that basic divide. In 2013, on the 150th anniversary of the SPD’s founding, she recognized her counterparts as the bastions of German democracy. Not for nothing, three of the four national governments she led were partnerships with the Social Democrats, what used to be called the “grand coalition.” In 1966, when that option was adopted as a last resort in West Germany, it was generally taken to be a sign of democratic crisis. With a 90 percent majority in the Bundestag, there was, effectively, no opposition.

In what may prove to be her last speech to the Bundestag, last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to voters to give their vote to Armin Laschet to be her successor as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. For Merkel as chancellor to speak in such a partisan manner from the rostrum of the parliament was unusual. It is indicative of her party’s desperation, which has slumped to historic lows in opinion polls. In some ways, even more revealing than her belated support for Laschet was the dark fear Merkel conjured up. German voters should back Laschet, she urged, because the alternative would be a government of the left uniting the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and Die Linke.

Laschet himself and Bavaria’s Markus Söder, his rival for national CDU leadership, have since doubled down, warning not just of Die Linke, a party formed out of remnants of Germany’s Socialist Unity Party and the West German left. They also have also called into question the SPD’s own post-war history, reminding voters of the SPD’s opposition back in the 1950s, its alliance with France that formed the European Union, West Germany’s original membership in NATO, and the SPD leadership’s hesitancy in 1989 when it came to German reunification.

What this reminds us of is once upon a time, Germany knew a left-right divide. Socialists squared off with hawkish Christian Democratic cold warriors. Accusations of complicity with communism or Nazism flew thick and fast. The condition of Merkel’s long rein was the repression of that basic divide. In 2013, on the 150th anniversary of the SPD’s founding, she recognized her counterparts as the bastions of German democracy. Not for nothing, three of the four national governments she led were partnerships with the Social Democrats, what used to be called the “grand coalition.” In 1966, when that option was adopted as a last resort in West Germany, it was generally taken to be a sign of democratic crisis. With a 90 percent majority in the Bundestag, there was, effectively, no opposition.

Under Merkel from 2005, that anomalous arrangement became the norm. It has not been good for either the CDU or the SPD. According to polls, the once grand coalition will not muster the 50 percent it needs to govern a two-party coalition. But as Merkel prepares to depart the stage of German politics, Germany’s repressed ideological divide has returned. It has already shaped the campaign; it could soon shape the fate of Europe.

It was not Christian Democrats who put an end to the left-right divide as the main axis of German politics. It was the SPD. The SPD’s shift to neoliberalism under then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the late 1990s broke the left wing away from the social democratic mothership. Under the leadership of charismatic then-SPD President Oskar Lafontaine, the West German left merged with the East German Party of Democratic Socialism—descended from the communist-era ruling party—to form Die Linke. Although he seeks to distance himself today from the harsh social policies adopted by Schröder’s Red-Green coalition—the Hartz IV welfare regime is now anathema—German Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz faithfully served Schröder as the SPD’s general-secretary. Not only on domestic social policy but on foreign policy too, a deep divide opened in the 2000s between the SPD-Greens government and the Die Linke. Both the SPD and even more so the Greens are thoroughly Atlanticist whereas Die Linke questions Germany’s NATO membership. It favors détente with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Several of its Bundestag members refused to vote to send troops to help protect the recent Kabul evacuation.

By association with Die Linke, regardless of their merits, left-wing positions were systematically marginalized. Both in 2005 and 2013, an anti-Merkel coalition of the SPD, Greens, and Die Linke was an option, at least hypothetically. The SPD never seriously explored it. Only at the regional level has it been tried. But the temptation remains. On domestic policy—taxes, public investment, and climate—the SPD, Greens, and Die Linke are closely aligned. And the CDU’s strategists know it.

The CDU is conjuring the menace of communists in government not only to scare voters to the right. What they really want to do is provoke a split within the SPD’s ranks itself. After the SPD leadership’s controversial decision for Scholz to join another coalition with Merkel following the 2017 election, the SPD left-wing rebelled. Youthful radical and German politician Kevin Kühnert led a protest movement within the party to stop the coalition. Party centrists warded him off. Scholz has since worked out a modus vivendi with the party’s left wing. It is a two-pronged strategy. Scholz assumes the style of a moderate Merkel 2.0 while the SPD base campaigns on an agenda that is far closer to Die Linke and the Greens than the CDU. The CDU’s last minute scare campaign is aimed at exposing this tension.

As an arch-centrist, Scholz is no doubt personally averse to a coalition with Die Linke. It would be a huge gamble. The SPD would lay itself open to savage attacks from the CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), saying it was pursuing radical domestic reform. Yet Scholz refuses to do what might seem to be the obvious alternative: to rule out Red-Red-Green all together and run to the center. Why? The real reason he keeps the Red-Red-Green option open is having it in his hand changes the terms of another, far more likely coalition negotiation: the so-called traffic light coalition between the SPD-Greens and the liberal FDP.

The FDP are big losers of the last 25 years of German politics. In the old West German party regime, they were in power continuously, either as coalition partners of the CDU or the SPD. Since 1998, they have been in government only once: in Merkel’s second term between 2009 and 2013, a period dominated by the euro crisis.

This long exclusion from power is also a matter of tactical decision-making on the part of the FDP itself. After the shock election of 2017, which brought the right-wing Alternative for Germany party into the Bundestag, Merkel clearly wanted a CDU-Greens-FDP coalition. Merkel had been eying the Greens for a long time. She served almost as a patron to the current leader of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock. But, after weeks of talks, the FDP flinched, leaving the Greens out of the picture and Merkel lurching back toward the SPD.

After Sept. 27, a CDU-Greens-FDP coalition will likely be arithmetically possible. But if the polls are confirmed, the CDU will have suffered a historic loss. Laschet will lack all legitimacy as chancellor. The Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union in Bavaria will dissolve into recriminations and will be deeply unattractive to either the Greens or the FDP as a partner. Instead, they will turn to Scholz. And this is where the Red-Red-Green option comes into play.

A coalition with the FDP rather than with Die Linke is a far safer coalition for both the SPD and the Greens. They would have little to fear from the CDU relegated to opposition benches. It would be the FDP that would take flak from the right. But on policy, there is a huge divide between the SPD and the Greens on the one side and the FDP on the other. The FDP follows a policy of small government and individual responsibility; it aligns with the Greens on cultural liberalism and human rights issues but favors private businesses. In relation to China and Russia, the FDP might pair well with the Greens, less so over Europe. The Greens espouse a more tightly integrated future whereas the FDP favors a rule-bound, intergovernmental model. The fear is that as he did in 2017, Christian Lindner, the mercurial leader of the FDP, might bolt. In 2017, Lindner paid a heavy popularity price for walking away from coalition talks—and that was with a moderate CDU/SPD government as the alternative. If he refuses to come to terms with Scholz and the Greens—thereby opening the door to the left Red-Red-Green government—the FDP’s own supporters will never forgive him. Not ruling out Red-Red-Green gives Scholz leverage over Lindner.

The key issue is the terms of the traffic light deal; this is what matters for the world and Europe in particular. In the election, Lindner has positioned himself as a future finance minister, the job Scholz now holds. The question Lindner has posed to his electorate of higher-earning, college-educated, upper-middle-class professionals is: Do you want me as finance minister or Robert Habeck, the free-thinking and radically minded co-leader of the Greens? Lindner promises to ensure taxes do not rise and plans to take a hard line on debt. By contrast, both the SPD and the Greens want to find ways around the debt cap that limits public investment. If Lindner gets his way, it would hurt domestic policy and provoke splits within the SPD’s ranks. It would also pose dangerous questions for Europe’s financial future. If a German finance minister throws his weight behind the EU’s smaller conservative member states, which are calling for a return to fiscal orthodoxy, it will be a disaster for Europe. France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Portugal all have debts in excess of 100 percent of their GDPs. They represent 60 percent of the euro area’s population. The stage would be set for a disastrous clash of the type that resulted in the eurozone crisis.

Scholz and his team know this. They were principally responsible for architecting the deal with France that saved Europe in the face of 2020’s COVID-19 shock. They know that returning to a conservative line is profoundly unrealistic. The question is: What price will German politics exact?

Based on current polling, it would be the SPD and the Greens calling the shots in coalition negotiations, but a lot depends on the final tallies. Will the Greens slide behind the FDP? Or will CDU voters flock to the FDP in the hope of influencing a Scholz-led coalition? Might the CDU’s final tally improve as a result of postal voting?

A Laschet-led government—in the event the CDU manages to edge out from the SPD—would provide the appearance of continuity but would be weak and deeply divided in actuality. Berlin would stand to lose its role as the first among equals in Europe. If the SPD comes out ahead but the FDP does better and the Greens less well than expected, then Scholz’s dilemma will be how to allocate key portfolios. If Lindner is serious about dictating a conservative financial stance, that should be recognized for what it is: a deeply ideological position that may appeal to his electoral base but is otherwise out of touch with reality. Compared to that, a gamble on a Red-Red-Green government might seem like a better bet. It would certainly provide the basis for a more accommodating pro-European fiscal policy. The risk would be it would encourage the CDU and FDP in opposition to harden their position on both domestic and European debt, meaning disaster in the future. To avoid alienating SPD and Greens voters, it would need to deliver results fast, something that would mark a true break with the Merkel era.

There are risks to reopening the left-right divide in German politics. But there are risks also to pretending the differences between progressivism and stand-pat conservatism are not real. Either way, it is not too much to say Europe’s future hangs in the balance.

Correction, Sept. 17, 2021: A previous version misstated Oskar Lafontaine’s title.

Adam Tooze is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a history professor and director of the European Institute at Columbia University. His latest book is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, and he is currently working on a history of the climate crisis. Twitter: @adam_tooze

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