Scholz will be a weak Chancellor
One only need look at the way the leaders of the Green party and the Free Democrats have choreographed a smooth PR campaign this week to know that Olaf Scholz, as likely head of the next government, will have to content himself with the position of primus inter pares rather than taking on the presidential role of his predecessor.
Merkel reigned supreme within her party, while her partner in government for 12 of the 16 years was a sulking SPD that was in a constant battle with itself.
Scholz won’t have it so easy.
The Greens and the FDP have turned themselves into disciplined electoral machines who have time on their side. Simple demographics mean that ever more voters for the old parties are dying while the Greens and Liberals gain in strength with every new cadre that reach their 18th birthday.
It is an illusion to believe, as some do, that Scholz will be able to play the two smaller parties off against one another in order to push through his own agenda.
First of all, the current Finance Minister doesn’t have much of an agenda.
He is a true heir to Merkel in the sense that he represents risk-free muddling along in the middle. The SPD was slightly more adventurous in its manifesto than the CDU, but there is still no great reform plan there.
Scholz can be summed up with a sentence he uttered in the second TV debate: “the moderate path is the correct path.” While he was talking about expanding renewable energy production, it could just as well have been his election motto.
Secondly, Scholz isn’t even king of his own castle. He lost a vote to become SPD leader in humiliating circumstances in late 2019, when party members picked a relatively unknown duo who campaigned on rolling back the Schröder-era labour market reforms.
SPD chairpersons Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans will try to keep the party to a left-wing course, while Scholz wants to hold it in the centre. If recent SPD history is anything to go by, this could lead to battles and backstabbing in the Bundestag faction.
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that the Social Democrats’ election result represents a high compared to polling over the past four years. If support flags again, a fragile inner-party unity will be broken.
Even more concerning to Scholz than the imbalanced SPD hierarchy will be the young and ambitious leaders of his two junior partners.
Gerhard Schröder once patronizingly put the Greens in their place by saying that “the big [party] is the cook, the small one is the waiter.”
But ‘big’ and ‘small’ is all a matter of perspective these days. The Greens and FDP combined will have four more seats in the next Bundestag than the SPD.
On an ideological level there are significant differences between the Greens and the FDP. As I’ve mentioned in previous newsletters, the Greens desire a state with a greater role in setting rules for the markets. For example, they want a ban on the sale of combustion engines by 2030. For the FDP, the idea that the state can set such rigid deadlines is anathema.
But the Greens are also in competition with the SPD for the centre-left vote. This gives them a strategic incentive to team up with the FDP. Just a few months ago they seemed to be winning the race to become the dominant centre-left party. There is no doubt that their goal is to regain that polling lead by the next election.
After four years in the opposition together, the Greens and FDP are also used to cooperating. They have worked together on draft laws on electoral reform and on changing the legal definition of transsexuality. Meanwhile, lobby reporters have noted their close collaboration in Bundestag committees, most notably a highly critical report on the failings of Scholz’s finance authority during the Wirecard affair.
This all highlights what the FDP and Greens have in common. As representatives of younger voters, they both pay more than just lip service to digitalization. They also have similar foreign policy objectives, with both wanting to move away from the mercantilism that has typified German policy for decades.
The biggest factor of all though will be the personalities at the top of the two smaller parties.
After a first round of talks between the heads of the two parties on Tuesday evening, all four posted the same selfie to Instagram in unison and with the same text.
“In the search for a new government, we sought common ground and bridges over our divides. We even found some. Exciting times,” the statement read. The media ate it up. Make no mistake, these are all politicians who know how to skillfully influence public opinion.
Christian Lindner has made the past two FDP elections campaigns all about himself. Last time around he could be seen in sharp suits doing modern things like listening to music through a smartphone.
This time he wasn’t so relaxed. Posters showed him up late at night at his desk, looking tired but focused. “Never has there been as much to do,” the slogan read.
The 42-year-old liberal leader is also a risk taker. He made a calculated gamble to collapse coalition talks with the CDU and Greens after the 2017 election. That cost his party in the short term, but he knew it was a necessary corrective to his party’s reputation as der ewige Koalitionspartner der CDU.
Love him or hate him, Lindner is the most recognisable politician under 50 - and no one should doubt that he secretly sees his preferred position in the next government - Finance Minister - as just the second most important role of his career.
Despite appearances, the Green leadership are just as Machtgeil. Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock decided between themselves behind closed doors which of the two would run for the Chancellery. That type of tactic is new for a party that promotes grass-roots decision making.
And to top it off, Habeck got Baerbock to agree to let him have the more powerful post in government should she fail to win over 17 percent of the vote as Chancellor candidate. That recalls similar moves by previous masters of power politics, such as Angela Merkel check-mating Edmund Stoiber in 2002, or Tony Blair sidelining Gordon Brown at a famous Islington dinner in 1994.
Ulrich Schulte, political correspondent for the left-wing Taz newspaper, describes in his book Die Grüne Macht just how image conscious Habeck and Baerbock are. Any interview that is sent to them for approval (something that is standard in German journalism) will be returned with countless phrases rewritten or struck through with red marker.
Meanwhile, Schulte notes with disappointment how submissive the once legendarily rebellious Green rank and file have become.
A threat of the magnitude of climate change demands discipline. It can even justify using the back-handed tricks of the Altparteien.
Linder and Habeck will both demand high offices of state. Unlike the grey suits in Merkel’s governments, voters will actually know who they are - they’ll both make sure of that.
And the agenda that will make headlines when the new coalition is announced will be a Green one (accelerating the Energiewende) and a liberal one (digitizing bureaucracy and schools). The best Scholz can hope for is that voters see him as a dull but sensible arbitrator amongst all this youthful energy.