The promising start of Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz seems to have faded away after only six months of governing. The social democrat won the parliamentary elections and forged a coalition with the Greens and the Liberal Party. Though this ‘traffic light’ coalition –named after the colours of the three governing parties – is totally new and very ambitious judging from the coalition agreement, expectations are not being met by the Chancellor. Instead, the Greens are outshining him by doing better in the old and new media and in the polls. What is happening in German politics and what impact could it have on the government going forward?
“The Scholz effect”
To understand the current political situation in Germany we need to return to the late Summer of 2021. The late September election had a special feature: after almost sixteen years in office Angela Merkel announced not to stand again. Her Christian Democratic party and its smaller Bavarian partner (CDU/CSU) had struggled for more than two years to find a successor. Eventually, they decided to go for Armin Laschet, the experienced Governor of North Rhine Westphalia, the most populated Land in Germany. But during the campaign he made gaffes and seemed to run just to be a sort of replacement of Merkel.
Though she faced harsh criticism on some of her policies, Merkel had been a beacon of stability in much of the post-Cold War era. Given their country’s complicated past, Germans are inclined to elect their politicians for the long run. “What will I have in four years’ time?” is a much-heard question of German voters. In 2021, many of them turned towards Olaf Scholz.
The Social Democrat’s campaign just did the right thing at the right moment: Scholz was presented as a trustworthy, steady and experienced national politician. There is much truth in that. After being mayor of Hamburg, he stepped into Merkel’s cabinet as Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor in 2017. Scholz was a reliable and even somewhat boring minister, but it worked out in the end: many saw him as a good replacement for Merkel. And many of her voters – mostly senior and rural citizens – walked over to the Social Democrats. At the same time, younger and more urban Germans voted for the Greens and Liberals (FDP), the two parties whom Scholz would forge the government with.
Equality and vision
When Scholz’s government was sworn in, on December 8, all seemed to be in balance. The new Chancellor presented a program in which social democrat socio-economic policies were combined with Green environmental and liberal fiscal responsible policies. The Social Democrats got the chancellor, the Greens the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economy and the Liberals got Finance. Together, they showed vision for the long run. “We aim to govern for eight years,” Scholz stated.
The new Chancellor, however, started slowly and seemed a bit in stealth mode. Not that he had much competition from others; the most important ministers where somewhat inexperienced, especially within the Green camp. Many commentators did not expect much from the Green couple Annalena Baerbock (minister of Foreign Affairs) and Robert Habeck (minister of Economy and Climate). Baerbock seemed especially interested in conveying her ideas and vision of woman rights and gender neutrality. And Habeck had been a long time critic of Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. Not only is gas bad for the climate, Habeck stated, it is also not good policy to support an authoritarian leader such as Vladimir Putin. Now the new minister had to deal with what he inherited.
Game changer: Ukraine
Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine and almost everything changed. A few days after the start of the Kremlin’s military campaign, Scholz held an historic speech in parliament. In his later called Zeitenwenderede – ‘historical turning point speech’ – the Chancellor condemned the Russian military attack on the sovereign state of Ukraine and promised the Germans would prop up their military to help defend Europe. Scholz promised to pump 100 billion euros in the German armed forces and committed to the NATO benchmark of 2% of GDP on defence.
Though Scholz’s speech was received with loud applause, he did not turn out to be such a decisive move once the war in Ukraine moved on. Germany was extremely careful in providing heavy weaponry to the Ukrainians, for instance, and seemed to wait for others to move first. Being invisible was more Scholz’s style, so it seemed, then actively defending and promoting the new German approach. Instead, Green minister Baerbock travelled the world to condemn the Kremlin and to forge working coalitions against Russia. And of all Western countries, Germany – together with Italy – was also very slow in taking economic action against Russia – largely due to the priority of energy supplies. In any case, it was Bearbock who, when needed, communicated her points in the best way.
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During the last three months the Greens have outshined chancellor Scholz. They turned out to be masters in playing by the modern media rules and by using social media in the right way. Just like Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelensky, Habeck uses his phone to record short and clear messages for his audience. I’m in Qatar now. Why? Because we need to find alternatives for Russian gas, he tells his viewers during a visit to Doha. And Baerbock was pictured in the German evening news with clear one-liners, such as: the Russian aggression will not be tolerated by Berlin. But where was Chancellor Scholz?
The Greens also turn out to be good pragmatists. Since the 24th of February, Bearbock has seemed to leave her idealistic self behind and focussed instead on Realpolitik. The same can be said of Habeck: realizing that the government could not force Germany to build more solar panels and wind mills in the short run, the strategy became to find any available energy sources in countries such as Qatar and Israel instead. Habeck visited Jerusalem on June the 6th to discuss possibilities for buying gas from the Israeli offshore gas field Levethian, which will be connected to Europe soon.
Besides the Greens, who are surging in the polls and many points ahead of Scholz’s SPD, there is the liberal junior partner FDP. Its leader Christian Lindner, who is also finance minister –an especially powerful position in German politics –, has already stated that his party must be more visible. Eventually, this could cause tensions with the Greens and SPD, who are more leaning towards the left of the policy spectrum. Either way, the Chancellor’s own party has to watch out electorally. After winning the parliamentary elections it lost almost all local and state elections – with significant gains by the opposition Christian Democrats. If Olaf Scholz does not start to become the new Willy Brandt or Helmut Schmidt soon, he could face opposition from within his own party.
It is particularly worrisome for the Chancellor that Christian Democrats and Greens are now trying to forge local and state governments together. The political balance of power in Europe’s most important country could be changing rapidly.