Even before engaging in the risky business of speculation on possible coalitions, it is worth asking ourselves what kind of country and social climate is being reflected in the result of Sunday’s federal elections in Germany—at least to the extent that a vote is able to show.
To start with, let’s look at the two surprises that it reserved for us: namely, the miraculous recovery of a Social Democratic party that was on its last legs, and the failure of the Greens to break through, in a context strongly dominated by their top issues, despite achieving the best result in their party’s history.
The fact that climate change and environmental protection are taking top spot among the concerns of the Germans is well established. But equally powerful is the fear that radical intervention in this area will have a negative impact on Germany’s industrial and production establishment. Thus, a government with a Green majority would have brought the risk of starting a transition phase that could have been too rapid and traumatic for millions of workers employed in traditional industry.
All in all, the perception of Germany as a successful model capable of guaranteeing the continuation of acceptable levels of welfare is still quite deep-rooted.
Certainly, the growth in social inequality has been felt and has been put into the spotlight, as the numerous flaws in the welfare system have also been. This led to the hope (or belief) that a strengthening of Social Democracy—albeit worn down by years of a subordinate role in the co-management of power with the CDU-CSU—could correct these negative trends without too much pain. Moreover, the memory of the ferocious neoliberal reform of the labor market which a social-democratic government, that of Gerhard Schröder, gifted to the Christian Democrats as a winning issue on a silver platter, has dimmed in the meantime.
It was certainly not any kind of fear that influenced voters’ choices: neither that of immigration, nor that of the presumed European designs on the wallets of the Germans, nor that of dangerous geopolitical imbalances, nor that of an illiberal use of policies to contain the pandemic, and not even, in the end, that of the climate catastrophe. Rather, there is a general impatience and widespread uncertainty that were reflected in the increased fragmentation of the vote.
And, above all, they were reflected in the acceleration of the decline of the CDU, which has been underway for some time now. What will become of this party after Angela Merkel remains unknown. What form will conservative politics take? What will be the balance between old certainties and the need for innovation? What will be their ability to maintain social cohesion? What balance between national interest and European commitment will they stand for?
The Chancellor knew how to give spur-of-the-moment answers to these questions, sometimes unfortunate, sometimes contradictory, often stalling, but generally capable of preventing major conflicts and avoiding dead ends. But without elaborating a doctrine, a line of policy, a non-personal political image that could be passed on to those who would succeed her.
With great skill, she had managed to snatch away social issues, fragments of a program and progressive tones from the SPD, with consequent shifts in electoral support in her favor. But now, the admirers of the “progressive” Merkel, not trusting her successor, are returning to their Social Democratic home. Nowadays, the latter represents the most reassuring combination between continuity and renewal, between neoliberal creed and social adjustments.
The political tradition of Germanic moderationism is for the most part in the hands of the SPD, and the possible coalitions it might envision don’t really frighten anyone.
But neither do they arouse great enthusiasm.
The outright collapse of Die Linke as a national party, and its slow erosion in the strongholds of the East, demonstrate once again the loss of the appeal of the “both struggle and government” formula. All the more so when the struggle is languishing and the concrete possibilities of government are becoming uncertain. Not to mention the divisions that have long been running through the party, pitting one value against another, identity against political decisiveness.
In the eastern Länder, it is the SPD that is increasing its government credibility, and the AfD, frozen in a radicalism condemned to isolation, is gathering the anger and resentment of the excluded. The latter is a threat that is declining at the federal level, where the powerless party of the extreme right is losing its bourgeois electorate to the FDP, whose positions on the economy are based on the priority of the national interest, thus also attracting the most hardline fringes of the Christian-Democratic electorate.
Rather than translating into clear political options, the mood of the country seems to be limited to declaring that “we cannot go on like this.” A state of mind that, if nothing else, rules out the moral legitimacy and political sensibility of a government led by the defeated Armin Laschet—one which would drag the Greens into complete disrepute, should they agree to take part in it.
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