We can talk about the firm intention of the ruling party to maintain the leadership and course of the outgoing chancellor. However, it is controversial whether this stake will work in the long term: coalition negotiations will be difficult, and there are few backup options, writes Julia Melnikova, Program Assistant at the Russian International Affairs Council.
On September 26, 2021, Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure as Federal Chancellor of Germany will end. Protracted periods of stability, even positive stability, as a rule lead to a decrease in domestic political activity: players get used to an adaptive strategy, lose their ability to manoeuvre tenaciously, and at a turning point cannot decide to change. Germany is no exception: the upcoming elections are a fork between the continuation of traditional politics (stability) or an attempt at renewal (risk), primarily for the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Although Merkel announced her intention to leave the post of CDU head, having ruled out her re-election as chancellor, back in 2018, the process of choosing a successor, and therefore determining the future course, was not without difficulties. At first, the stake was placed on Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — then the general secretary of the party, a technocrat even outwardly similar to the chancellor, but she did not gain popularity and after the scandal in the Thuringia state elections in February 2020, she resigned. After a year of hesitation, the place was taken by Armin Laschet — Prime Minister of one of the largest and most developed regions, North Rhine — Westphalia, an experienced politician and traditionalist.
In the struggle, they bypassed not only a stubborn revisionist, the former head of the CDU/CSU faction in the Bundestag Friedrich Merz, and the ambitious Minister of Health Jens Spahn, but also the leader of Bavaria, Markus Soeder, who has earned great popularity in the fight against COVID-19. At the state level, his Christian Social Union (CSU) operates independently, but at the federal level — it acts in alliance with the CDU. If the bloc won the elections, he could apply for the post of chancellor, but the CDU/CSU board voted against this after behind-the-scenes consultations. This confirms the party’s explainable choice in favour of stability: excessive risks during the transition of power can lose political capital, and continuity will help preserve the main voters.
However, the current ratings and political tradition will not allow the CDU to single-handedly form a government in the event of victory, and in the coalition negotiations, the stake on stability may already play against the party. Since 2013, the “grand coalition” of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) has been in power. In the absence of traditional competition, the “crisis of the centre” proved fatal for the Social Democrats, who ceased to be associated with the working class and the centre-left agenda and lost their voters.
It is difficult to count on a third “grand coalition”, even for reasons of continuity in such conditions: support for the CDU/CSU fluctuates at the level of 23-25%, and for the SPD — 18-20% of the vote.
The Social Democrats have relied on Olaf Scholz, the most experienced finance minister and vice-chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. He surpasses Laschet in popularity, but his ability to further increase the rating is limited. The #laschetlacht scandal related to the incorrect behaviour of the candidate during the floods in Germany in July 2021 may cost the CDU some support.
What can the CDU/CSU count on in this situation at the coalition negotiations? How can a majority be achieved? The big party crisis did not mobilise small parties in the way the CDU would have liked. The radical Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the intractable Greens have gained in popularity: if a coalition with the first is excluded for ideological reasons, then an alliance with the latter contradicts the preservation of stability. Chancellor-candidate Anna-Lena Baerbock and the party’s electoral programme make it clear that they are in favour of changing the course of German policy (for example, for stopping Nord Stream-2). Today the party is supported by about 20% of voters (and in the spring this figure reached 28%) — this is twice as much as 4 years ago, and reflects public demand for innovations. Accordingly, the black-green coalition initially has a potential for conflict.
It turns out that the CDU needs a coalition of three parties. The centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) claims 10-11% of the vote and could either balance the Greens, or boost the coalition with the CDU/CSU and the SPD to the required majority. The first option was already considered 4 years ago and the negotiations did not lead to success, despite the political weight of Merkel, which Laschet does not have. FDP leader Christian Lindner is not the easiest negotiator and does not have confidence in the Greens. Will he go for another deal?
The coalition of CDU/CSU, SPD and FDP could have a symbolic meaning in the context of transit — the main colours of the parties add up to the German flag. It responds to the CDU’s stake on continuity (at the expense of the SPD), but tolerates moderate innovation (from the FDP). Germans today have no clear coalition preferences, which indicates that the population has no idea of their capabilities. In this situation, the voter may well support the course towards stability.
In other words, we can talk about the firm intention of the ruling party to maintain the leadership and course of the outgoing chancellor. However, it is controversial whether this stake will work in the long term: coalition negotiations will be difficult, and there are few backup options. Laschet will have to manoeuvre between persistence and concessions, and analysts will have a very interesting autumn.