international analysis and commentary

Traffic Light coalition: a fresh path for German politics


In Germany, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens were the clear winners of the federal elections on September 26, 2021. The Free Democrats (FDP) registered a slight gain, while the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Left Party were clear losers. As the SPD and CDU/CSU do not want to renew their outgoing “grand coalition”, the so-called “Traffic Light” coalition of the SPD, the FDP and the Greens (red, yellow, green) is the most likely solution. There is, however, a slight chance that the CDU/CSU could form a so-called Jamaica coalition with the FDP and the Greens.

The campaign by SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz was generally well run especially when compared to the CDU/CSU. The snappy campaign slogans “A social policy for you” and “Respect for you” promoted an electoral manifesto with the message that Scholz has a plan.

Olaf Scholz


This is key as Germany is embarking on the task of piecing together a new ruling coalition – and it is likely to be a long and complicated process as party members will have to vote on any agreement. Scholz assured voters saying that this complex process was no reason for concern: “Germany always has coalition governments and it has always been stable.” Scholz is confident that he will become Germany’s next chancellor. According to an FG Wahlen poll for national broadcaster ZDF, 76% prefer an SPD-led government compared to 13% who prefer one headed by the CDU/CSU.

The first phase of talks on forming a new German government has begun, and the smaller parties are setting the agenda. The FDP and the Greens have a similar voter base: affluent, urban and well-educated. However, the parties belong to rival ideological camps. They lean different ways on economic solutions to social challenges and are far apart on how to go forward on the biggest issue in this election campaign: the climate crisis. The FDP is concerned that higher taxes might further damage Germany’s image as a place for investment. They are also preoccupied with the possible introduction of a wealth tax and a property tax, which is supported by their potential coalition partners the SPD and the Greens.

The two Green  co-leaders (left) and the FDP chairman (right) meet in Berlin


There is also common ground. The Greens and the FDP agree that enhanced and well-resourced digital and education policies are necessary for Germany in the 21st century. They also share common ground on the need to renew and liberalize the country’s immigration policy. The pressure to compromise will be more acute for the FDP leader Christian Lindner who cannot afford to bargain too hard and risk other parties walking away. That would call into question his leadership, especially after he walked away from a proposed Jamaica (CDU/CSU, Green and FDP) coalition in 2017.

On foreign policy, the Greens and the FDP both say they want to strengthen the European Union. They also both want to make the EU’s foreign policy more efficient, and there is considerable overlap on the role that human rights should play in foreign policy. Both parties see China and Russia with a critical eye. While the two smaller parties will likely advocate a tougher position about Russia and President Vladimir Putin for turning the country into a de facto dictatorship bereft of free speech, the Social Democrats may pursue a much softer line.

Tensions may also arise within the negotiating parties. There was a real chance that Annalena Baerbock would become Germany’s next vice chancellor. However, rumors have surfaced that co-leader Robert Habeck may in fact become the candidate of choice for the post. A Civey poll for Spiegel found that 69% believe Habeck should become vice chancellor in a potential SPD-Greens-FDP coalition, while just 15% percent said it should be Baerbock.

Meanwhile, Armin Laschet’s election campaign was one the worst that the CDU/CSU has run. His personal performance on the campaign trail was ineffective, delivering the CDU/CSU’s worst results in history. The CDU lost elderly voters to the SPD as Vice-Chancellor Scholz, had been campaigning on stability, portraying himself as Angela Merkel’s true successor. The SPD made significant progress among other age groups in the national election, except those under thirty. The CDU also lost young voters to the Green Party and to the pro-free market FDP.

The voters who changed their preference in the 2021 German election


Armin Laschet’s personal contribution to the CDU/CSU’s defeat was clear during the campaign. His campaign was viewed as clumsy at best, if not outright arrogant and error prone. In the final days before the election, Chancellor Angela Merkel campaigned at three election rallies with Laschet and her support helped close the gap. If Laschet is unable to succeed in getting a Jamaica coalition, his political career looks set for an end. He is still officially the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, but he has repeatedly stated that his place “is in Berlin after the election,” regardless of the outcome. While Laschet weighs his options in Berlin, the scramble for his successor has started at home. The decision will officially be made at a party conference on October 23rd. After 16 years in power, the CDU/CSU may resign to the opposition and take time to regroup.

Despite the results that were narrower than expected, the German electorate, nevertheless, appears to indicate a desire to see a shift away from the CDU/CSU in the post-Merkel political landscape. While coalition talks take place, Merkel’s government remains in office taking only essential decisions and making no major policy changes. The 2021 German election strengthened the center and weakened populism. While a change from Merkel is a seismic shift, Germans decided to vote for political stability at the same time. With Scholz as a potential chancellor, the SPD is set to move towards a more progressive centrist position.

The Greens and the Liberals are starting negotiations from a better position compared to the last time when they tried and failed to form a coalition in 2017 with the CDU/CSU. Both sides have already gotten closer during this year’s campaign — with the Greens emphasizing the growth-promoting aspects of climate investments, and FDP leader Christian Lindner saying he is open to imposing new taxes on digital giants, which the OECD countries have agreed on in principle. In the meantime, the SPD has begun informal talks with both parties. If negotiations are successful, the Traffic Light coalition may be in place before Christmas, providing a new and fresh perspective for German politics.