German Parties Close to Coalition Deal But Eye Smaller Partners

The Social Democrats signal they are open to a coalition with the far left while the conservatives talk with the Greens.

German Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel gives a speech, February 23, 2011
German Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel gives a speech, February 23, 2011 (SPD-Bundestagsfraktion)

Germany’s Christian and Social Democrats are almost certain to form a ruling coalition for the next four years yet both are exploring pacts with smaller parties. The Social Democrats signaled last week that they might at some point cooperate with Die Linke while Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives are deepening ties with the Greens.

The Greens walked out on coalition talks with Merkel’s party in October after it had fallen just five seats short of a majority in parliament in an election a month earlier. Although a pact could have benefited both electorally — socially liberal voters sympathize with the Greens’ cosmopolitanism but are doubtful they are ready for national government while the conservatives could have expanded their appeal to young and women voters — there was simply not enough common ground to enter a coalition, officials said. Climate targets, energy policy and taxation were among the main sticking points.

That forced Merkel into talks with her rival Social Democrats. They won a quarter of the votes in September and remain the second biggest party. Even if a vast majority of German voters favors a “grand coalition” between the two, the Social Democrats are reluctant. The last left-right government, which Merkel led between 2005 and 2009, cost them more than 10 percent support in the polls.

In a move that could put pressure on the conservatives to give more concessions to their future partners, and perhaps help them stave off another defeat, the Social Democrats’ party congress in Leipzig last week approved a motion that left open the possibility of a future national coalition with Die Linke. The successor to former East Germany’s ruling socialist party favors such an alliance but the Social Democrats have long been wary of deepening ties with a party that seeks to do away with the market economy and believes Germany should pull out of NATO.

The Social Democrats have nevertheless quietly dropped their ban on alliances with Die Linke at the state level in former East Germany where it remains popular. Between 2010 and 2012, it also backed a coalition government of Greens and Social Democrats in industrial North Rhine-Westphalia when the two fell short of a majority there.

Not to be outdone, Die Welt reports that some conservative lawmakers have revived informal talks with their Green party counterparts while the party in Hessen, home to Frankfurt’s financial industry as well as many of Germany’s leading chemical and pharmaceutical companies, invited the Greens into a coalition this week. The Greens previously governed with the right in Saarland.

Many Greens are at best skeptical about collaboration with the Christian Democrats. The party’s fundamentalist wing tends to obsess over the right’s pro-business instincts and its resistance to marriage equality. Similarly, conservative hardliners dismiss the Greens as naive pacifists who prioritize environmental protection over economic development.

But Merkel’s party could use a new partner. Its traditional allies, the liberal Free Democrats, lost their seats in parliament this year when they failed to cross the 5 percent election threshold. So did the Euroskeptic newcomer Alternative für Deutschland which is fiscally conservative and a possible ally, except that it seeks to withdraw from the euro.

There is also less that divides Germany’s conservatives and ecologists than would be the case in most other countries. Environmentalism runs deep in German society and the Christian Democrats are not altogether resistant to it. In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster in Japan, Merkel adopted one of the Greens’ signature issues — denuclearization. She has also presided over an ambitious renewable energy program, as a result of which Germans now pay more for electricity than any other Europeans.

This year was apparently too soon for a coalition. The Greens, who were expecting a victory but ended up with fewer seats in the Bundestag, also have to decide whether to stay the centrist course or fall back on their leftist roots. The Social Democrats’ careful embrace of Die Linke, which could ultimately rehabilitate that party, should make the Greens’ decision easier — and the raise the prospects for an alliance with the Christian Democrats.