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Germany’s Social Democrats Won. What Are They Prepared To Give Away?

Although the SPD won the most votes, it must bargain with at least two other parties to form a governing majority.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
The Social Democrats' candidate for German chancellor, Olaf Scholz
The Social Democrats' candidate for German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, waves onstage at the party's headquarters in Berlin on Sept. 26. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Social Democrats win narrowly in German election, the U.N. General Debate enters its final day, Kosovo and Serbia escalate tensions, and the world this week.

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Germany Votes for Change, but Not Too Much

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: The Social Democrats win narrowly in German election, the U.N. General Debate enters its final day, Kosovo and Serbia escalate tensions, and the world this week.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.

Germany Votes for Change, but Not Too Much

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) is now Germany’s largest party after its victory in Sunday’s federal elections. The margin was slight—less than 2 percentage points more than the Christian Democratic coalition (CDU/CSU), according to the latest tally—reflecting a fragmented electorate. Just 25.7 percent of voters chose the SPD, making a coalition government inevitable.

If results hold, it will be remembered as a day of records: The best ever result for the Green party, which weathered a shaky campaign to win 14.8 percent of votes.

The CDU/CSU, in its first contest without Angela Merkel as the chancellor candidate in nearly two decades, suffered its worst election in the post-World War II period, with just 24.1 percent of votes. The sense of change was underlined by the SPD victory in Merkel’s home constituency.

The fringes. The far-right Alternative for Germany fared worse than in 2017 but is by no means a spent force. The party won 10.3 percent of votes (down from 12.6 percent in 2017) and remains the second-largest party in the former East Germany.

The Left party almost lost out completely, winning only 4.9 percent of the vote. The far-left party’s three outright constituency wins gave it a lifeline, allowing it to circumvent the 5 percent threshold usually needed to take seats in the Bundestag.

The kingmakers. With both the SPD and Christian Democrats aiming to form a government, it puts the Green party and the centrist (but fiscally conservative) Free Democratic Party (FDP) in prime position to extract concessions in what could be a long negotiating period of weeks or even months. Merkel granted her SPD coalition partners the finance and foreign affairs portfolios in 2017, which could serve as a benchmark in negotiations.

As Foreign Policy columnist Adam Tooze wrote earlier this month, whether the finance ministry is helmed by a spender or a penny-pincher will have huge implications for Europe’s economic recovery. “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,” Tooze wrote.

The FDP’s Christian Lindner is precisely the kind of finance minister Tooze fears. Writing in Foreign Policy last week, Sudha David-Wilp sized up Lindner’s options now that he has Germany’s two major parties at his door.

Not gone yet. While Germany’s political horse-trading begins, Merkel remains chancellor—albeit in an interim capacity—until a viable government is agreed. With the G-20 summit approaching at the end of October and the global United Nations climate summit following soon after, Merkel’s farewell tour could be a prolonged and busy one.

The World This Week

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hold virtual talks as part of the EU-China Strategic Dialogue. 

On Wednesday Sept. 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for talks in Sochi, Russia.

The U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council holds its first meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and Trade Representative Katherine Tai are expected to attend, along with European Commission Executive Vice Presidents Margrethe Vestager and Valdis Dombrovskis.

On Thursday, Sept. 30, climate and energy ministers gather in Milan for the final ministerial meeting before the U.N. global climate summit.

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

On Friday, Oct. 1, Venezuela introduces a digital currency, the digital bolívar. It also removes six zeros from its currency in an effort to keep up with inflation.

What We’re Following Today 

The final day of debate. Afghanistan’s U.N. ambassador Ghulam Isaczai is scheduled to speak today on the final day of the General Debate at the U.N. General Assembly. Whether he does will be an indication of how willing the body is to quickly accept the new Taliban government. Last week, the Taliban asked the U.N. to recognize as its new ambassador: Suhail Shaheen, a senior spokesman for the group.

A similar standoff over Myanmar’s U.N. representative Kyaw Moe Tun, whose tenure predates Myanmar’s coup, was resolved by the U.N. credentials committee in a compromise: Kyaw Moe Tun could stay in the job, provided he doesn’t speak today.

Iceland’s election. Iceland’s ruling coalition slightly increased its majority in parliament following elections over the weekend, as the centrist Progressive and Independence parties gained seats while the Left-Greens, the other party in a three-way coalition, lost some seats but retained enough to continue as a viable partner. Party leaders have yet to announce what form a new coalition might take.

For a few hours on Sunday, it appeared Iceland had joined Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Rwanda as one of the handful of countries with a majority-female legislature, but a recount reduced the number of female representatives to just 48 percent of Iceland’s incoming parliament.

Brexit pains. The British government will today consider plans to deploy the country’s armed forces to combat fuel shortages after a run on gas stations (a panic itself induced by a truck driver shortage) left many stations shuttered with empty pumps. Gas for cars is not the only sort in short supply; the carbon dioxide required to carbonate fizzy drinks is also on the verge of running out.

A shortage of both drivers and poultry workers following the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU has led to a U-turn from the Conservative government, which will now issue up to 10,500 temporary visas for foreign workers in an attempt to address the shortfall.

Whether truckers will take up the offer remains an open question; companies across Europe are also hiring, wages within the EU are higher, and new regulations have improved working conditions, according to Marco Digioia, the head of the European Road Haulers Association.

Although most British politicians won’t dare utter the word “Brexit,” as Jonathan Freedland argues, days of long lines for gas across the U.K.—along with the specter of bare supermarket shelves and a Christmas without turkeys—have led even 52 percent of Leave voters to partly blame Britain’s departure from the EU for the crisis, according to a poll.

Keep an Eye On

Turkey troubles. The U.S. State Department has threatened further sanctions against Turkey after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested Ankara would soon purchase more S-400 missile systems from Russia. A U.S. State Department official said on Sunday that “any significant new Russian arms purchases” would risk running afoul of the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which gives the U.S. government powers to sanction those who buy Russian weaponry. The United States already imposed sanctions on four employees of Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate last December in retaliation for Turkey’s initial S-400 purchase.

Serbia-Kosovo tensions. Serbian fighter jets flew close to the border with Kosovo on Sunday in the latest escalation of tensions between the two governments in recent days. The most recent round of unrest has been sparked by Kosovo’s ban on Serbian vehicle license plates in its territory, a move that Serbia has enforced on Kosovar plates. (The vehicles are allowed, but drivers must use temporary plates when driving across the border.)

Offices belonging to Kosovo’s interior ministry were set alight in the north of the country over the weekend, while grenades were thrown into another government building. Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti has accused Serbia of inciting ethnic Serbs living in the area to carry out the attacks. “Serbia is using Kosovo citizens to provoke a serious international conflict,” Kurti said on Saturday.

Odds and Ends

A senior Taliban commander has warned the group’s military rank-and-file fighters to clean up their act as the group’s foot soldiers celebrate in newly captured Kabul, the Wall Street Journal reports. New Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob chastised his recruits in a recent audio message, warning that their exploits, which have ranged from sightseeing to speeding, “are damaging our status” and were too close to the behavior of the “warlords and gangsters of the puppet regime.”

Yaqoob was particularly incensed by the fighters’ selfie obsession, which he said presented a security risk—particularly if sensitive locations or senior leadership were included in the shot.

Correction, Sept. 27, 2021: This was the CDU/CSU’s first election without Angela Merkel as the chancellor candidate in nearly two decades; a previous version of this article misstated this timeframe.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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