News & Politics

German Election a Win for the Left, But Can They Govern?

(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

The New York Times headline puts it succinctly: “Now comes the hard part.” The election in Germany that concluded this past weekend shows the left-wing Social Democratic Party, led by Olaf Scholz, winning narrowly over former chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU coalition led by Armin Laschet.

But the SDP did not come close to winning a majority of seats in the Bundestag, the nation’s parliament. In fact, forming any kind of coalition where the winning party received barely 25 percent of the vote is a challenge.

“It’s a historically unprecedented situation,” Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the German Marshall Fund, told The Times. “There is a structural shift going on in German politics.”

Indeed, German politics used to be a stable, boring place with two major parties of the right and left vying for power. But those two parties have fractured into four medium-sized parties and several smaller entities leading to tense negotiations to determine who serves and where in the coalition government.

And despite a dismal showing on election day, Mr. Laschet could end up serving as chancellor after all.

Mr. Laschet, whose unpopularity and campaign blunders saw his party crashing to the lowest election result ever, plans to do just that.

Unimpressed by appeals to concede defeat on “moral” grounds, Mr. Laschet said an “arithmetic” win was no longer enough to claim the chancellery.

“No one should behave as if he alone could build a government,” Mr. Laschet told reporters Monday. “He who can build a majority to back him will become chancellor.”

It wouldn’t be unheard of for a candidate who failed to win the popular vote to become chancellor. Both Willy Brandt in the 1950s and Helmut Kohl in the 1980s created center-left coalitions to govern despite trailing in the vote after the election.

But Laschet’s long-shot bid would depend on him allying his fortunes to parties that would be far more comfortable with the left-wing than the right.

Mr. Scholz, who has served as Ms. Merkel’s finance minister and vice chancellor for the last four years, is walking into a fiendishly complicated process where the power of who will become the next leader almost lies more with the two smaller parties that will be part of any future administration: The progressive Greens, who at 14.8 percent had the strongest result in their history, and the pro-business Free Democrats, at 11.5 percent.

In another first, the Greens and Free Democrats signaled that they would get together to hold talks ahead of any negotiations with the bigger parties.

Whatever deal the Greens and Free Democrats offer to Scholz, you can bet it will be farther left than anything he would have preferred leading the Social Democrats. But parties of the left and right are mostly about continuity and stability. Unlike American radical leftists, the German left isn’t about to kill the golden goose by destroying capitalism. Both parties embrace a liberal social policy and an expansive social safety net.

That won’t change no matter who ends up as chancellor.