The recent German election, held in late September, produced results that were close, and, in a way, were symmetrical.
The top two finishers, the center-left Social Democratic Party and center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union were separated by less than two percentage points, but more important is that — together — the two parties that have shared or exchanged power in Germany since the end of World War II got a little less than half of the votes. That’s the first time that’s happened in 75 years.
The winners, the Social Democrats won with 25.7 percent of the votes, the lowest winning result in modern German history. The second place Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel’s party through a 16-year chancellorship, got just 24.1 percent, the party’s smallest share since the Nazis fell.
You might interpret this as a rebuke to Merkel, except that the leader of the Social Democrats, Olaf Scholz was Merkel’s finance minister and deputy chancellor. In fact, it was Scholz who got Merkel to reject Merkel — or at least Merkel’s consistently conservative, Germany First, economic policies. Scholz and the pandemic convinced Merkel to open up the German treasury to save Europe.
But, now the fun begins. To form a government, it will take three parties to make a parliamentary majority. Both of the two parties who finished third and fourth in the election, the Greens (14.8 percent of the vote) and the Free Democrats (11.5 percent) need to agree to join. And they have agreed — they would prefer to join a coalition led by the Social Democrats, rather than the Christian Democrats.
And although the Greens are Progressive, to the left of the Social Democrats, and the Free Democrats are free-market conservatives of the center-right, they actually agree on many things.
What they don’t agree on is economic policy. The Greens applaud Olaf Scholz’s conversion of Angela Merkel while the Free Democrats prefer the old-school capitalist/nationalist Merkel before COVID-19 changed her thinking.
Complicating the conflict is that it’s not just philosophical, but personal. Each party has nominated one of its top men to be finance minister. Which one might Chancellor Scholz choose? And might the rejected party threaten to blow up the three-way partnership?
No less an authority than the brilliant Columbia University economist (and recent HERE & THERE guest) Adam Tooze says Scholz’ decision “will … decide the prospects not just of Germany’s next government, but of Europe.”
Madeleine Schwartz is a journalist based in Paris. She is the Editor of The Ballot.world, an online magazine of global politics. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The London Review of Books, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books, where she worked as an editor for several years.