Change in Germany – but how much?
A complex three-party coalition is the likeliest result of Germany’s October election, illustrating the political fragmentation that characterises much of Europe’s politics. The best-ever result for the Green party, and its likely role in the coalition government, reflects the impacts of Germany’s extensive climate action movement, and growing awareness of the climate crisis following catastrophic floods this July. But climate campaigners still insist that party programmes don’t reflect the urgency of the response needed, and will be pushing the new government to take stronger climate action.
Change is on the cards in Germany. With Angela Merkel stepping down as Chancellor after 16 years, that was always going to be the case, but following the October election, Germany looks set to embark on a new governance experiment, with a unique three-party coalition likely to take power. For civil society campaigners – not least for Germany’s large and youthful climate movement – the fact that the Green party will likely be included in the coalition represents a new opportunity to advance change in the heart of Europe.
A coalition of compromise
Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) alliance, slumped to its lowest-ever level of support. It took just 24.1 per cent of the popular vote, down from 32.9 per cent in the 2017 election. The three likely coalition parties, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Green party and the Free Democratic Party (FDP), all gained support.
The FDP, an economically neoliberal party, has often been a junior partner in coalition governments with both the CDU/CSU and the SPD, while the CDU/CSU and the SPD governed as a grand coalition between 2013 and 2021, and the Green party has joined SPD-led coalitions in the past. So coalition governments are nothing new, but at the federal level, a three-party coalition is. Talks are already underway, and there seems broad consensus that this is the government that should result. Initial suggestions by the CDU/CSU that it might instead form a coalition came to little.
But putting together a governing coalition of ideologically diverse partners will be a delicate matter. The FDP defends the interests of business and seeks to limit public spending, taxation and market regulation. The Green party, having achieved its best-ever result and finished above the FDP, will insist that more market regulation and state intervention are needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. They expect to see a more rapid phase out of coal and transition to renewable energies, paid for through higher taxes on the wealthiest. Who gets to become the next finance minister will say much about what direction Germany is headed in.
Deadly floods show the urgency of action
Positioned between the two junior partners is the SPD, whose success in overtaking the CDU/CSU rested partly on positioning its candidate for Chancellor, finance minister Olaf Scholz, as the person to ensure continuity with Merkel. But continuity won’t be enough to challenge the climate crisis, the reality of which was brought home in July when devastating floods swept through Germany and its neighbours.
As record amounts of rain fell, at least 196 people were killed by floods in Germany alone, and many more were left without power and water. A study concluded that climate change had made this type of deadly flooding up to nine times more likely. The floods in Germany and surrounding countries were one of a series of extreme weather events that characterised the northern hemisphere’s summer, including an extreme heatwave in Canada and wildfires in Russia, the USA and Greece, Italy and Turkey – see our story – as once-extreme weather events become more common.
Polls showed that most Germans believed the floods were caused by human-driven climate change, and all parties represented in parliament, bar the extreme-right Alliance for Germany (AfD), agreed. There was political outcry when the CDU/CSU’s candidate to replace Merkel, Armin Laschet, was seen not to be taking the emergency seriously.
Germany has a large, youthful and vocal climate movement that has been pushing the government to do much more to combat climate change. Recent years have seen mass protests, school strikes, direct action and non-violent civil disobedience focused on targets such as Germany’s coal industry and motorway and airport expansion. Germany has committed to end coal mining and use only by 2038, and campaigners are demanding more urgency. In April, young climate activists achieved a breakthrough, winning a court ruling that the government must revise its net-zero law to make clearer how and when carbon emissions are to be reduced. The verdict was reached on the grounds that the existing law violated the rights of younger people.
But for all the pressure, it would be misleading to characterise this as solely a climate election. The CDU/CSU, which as its support waned increasingly used ‘red scare’ tactics to paint the opposition as dangerously radical, portrayed the Greens’ proposed climate measures as entailing excessive business regulation. While the floods likely influenced some people’s votes, there still seems to be a gap between climate concern and voting choices. The Green party topped the polls earlier this year only to lose ground as the election approached. It seems it is still struggling to shake off its image as a party that wants to ban things, threatening comfortable German lifestyles in areas such as travel and diet.
In a highly vaccinated country now focused on emerging from the pandemic, the danger is that people may not embrace climate action if they equate it to giving up the things they have only just started to enjoy again. After a temporary lull in emissions when German society was locked down, 2021 is forecast to see a huge leap.
But alongside the risks that come from inadequate climate action, there is a lurking danger for German democracy in the apparent gap between the urgency of climate action that many young people see and the lack of priority given the issue by many older people, whose votes count for much given the country’s ageing population.
Many young people criticise all the parties – including the Green party – for not going far enough. Little wonder that many young people are dissatisfied with Germany’s democratic institutions. An agreement by all three likely coalition partners to lower the voting age to 16 offers one positive acknowledgement of how young people have become politically active and should be listened to, although it is still far from winning enough support to be enacted.
To try to make their voices heard, the climate movement came together to hold a week of action ahead of the election, with Fridays for Future mobilising around 600,000 people in a cross-country action in the two days prior to voting. A group of young climate activists even held a hunger strike in Berlin.
If this grassroots demand for climate action is not served by the new coalition, and if Germany remains one of the world’s biggest emitters, many young people will wonder whether anything has really changed.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Sascha Müller-Kraenner is Executive Director of Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe), an organisation that supports sustainable ways of life and economic systems that respect ecological boundaries.
According to polls, climate change was the most important issue in the election. This was partly because of frustration with the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ government, which was complacent about the climate crisis, unable to achieve its own targets and unwilling to take far-reaching decisions in critical areas such as renewables, buildings, transport and agriculture.
The climate movement, particularly Fridays for Future, has become much stronger since the 2017 election. Young people are mobilised and they will keep up the pressure because they rightly fear for their future. The Green party will very likely form part of the new government after achieving its best election result ever. This bodes well for climate policy and also for the influence of the climate movement. The Green party has by far the most expertise and willingness to adopt ambitious climate policy, and it is also the most open to the concerns of the climate movement.
The recent floods were widely, and correctly, attributed to climate change. However, the debate has not changed much after the immediate crisis was over. The government had to commit €30 billion (approx. US$35 billion) to fix flood-related damage and rebuild the affected regions. Yet, in the context of the election, climate policy was debated as a ‘cost’ that society has to pay for altruistic reasons.
Pitting climate policy against economic development is a false dichotomy. The truth is that we need to reduce emissions, even in areas where it is difficult, precisely to avoid massively costly events like floods and droughts becoming more and more frequent. This awareness that we need to protect the climate to protect ourselves is still missing.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Sascha Müller-Kraenner. Read the full interview here.
A European green wave?
What happens in Germany matters for Europe as a whole, because it is the most influential state in the European Union (EU) and broadly seen as the EU’s leader. Electoral trends there may have wider resonance.
The growth in support for the Green party is a far from isolated pattern. The Green vote increased in the last election in 13 European countries, and if the expected coalition forms, Germany will become the seventh EU member where Green parties are part of the governing coalition. At least in northern and western Europe, Green parties are becoming normalised as partners in government; it is no longer a surprise to see them there. The potential exists to develop an alliance between the streets and the halls of government: to combine the energy and pressure of climate movements with high-level political engagement.
This combined approach isn’t easy. In Germany’s neighbour Austria, the Green party has been in coalition with a centre-right party since January 2020. In October, when Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was forced to step down over corruption allegations, the Green party had to make a difficult decision to support his replacement, despite having called for greater transparency, rather than risk losing its role in government. Even before this, it was accused of making little headway in advancing climate policies. Germany’s Greens will doubtless face their own frustrations in getting the changes they want. But it would be a dereliction of duty not to try.
What clues for Europe’s politics?
Alongside the rise of the Greens, parties at the far ends of the political spectrum fared badly, with both the Left and AfD losing votes and seats. AfD came to prominence by attacking migrants in 2017 but attempts to turn anger at pandemic restrictions and anti-mask, anti-vaccine sentiment to its political advantage clearly failed; this could be significant, given that far-right parties in other European countries are seeking to do similar.
However, the threat isn’t over: AfD has experienced division between its most extremist factions and those seeking to position it as more moderate: its leader was in the latter camp and his post-election decision to stand down might lead to it showing its true far-right face.
A move away from extremist politics would be a heartening sign. But above all, as the likely three-way coalition indicates, the picture remains one of political fragmentation and volatility, and this is consistent with patterns across Europe. The SPD looks set to become the senior governing party despite winning far less of the vote than when it lost power in 2005. Large, established parties that occupy a broad part of the political spectrum are, in the main, still getting by on support levels much lower than they enjoyed before the 2007-2008 economic crisis that left no European state untouched.
There is some tentative evidence to suggest that social democratic parties might have benefited from people’s experience of the pandemic, which may have fostered greater appreciation of social safety nets, public healthcare, secure jobs and safe working conditions, and state intervention to ensure these. In Norway, the centre-left Labour Party returned to power in September, in an election where climate action also figured more highly than in the past. This means that for the first time all five Nordic countries now have centre-left governments.
Ultimately, it might be centre-right parties such as the CDU/CSU that lose ground – both to populists, and to parties that speak to many people’s social concerns and climate urgency. At the same time, populists stand ready to exploit any further economic shocks. The new German coalition can expect a bumpy ride, and Europe’s political volatility and fragmentation is far from over.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new government should commit to ambitious climate action to meet its emissions targets as soon as possible.
Germany should take a leading role in the EU and globally, as a major industrial power, to fund climate transition and pressure other states to meet emissions targets.
The German climate movement should keep up the pressure on the government to make ambitious climate commitments and hold the government to account on their implementation.
Cover photo by Alex Kraus/Bloomberg via Getty Images