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June 23, 2021

Europe

GERMANY: A manifesto for the country’s last catch-all party

BY Carsten Nickel

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Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian alliance (CDU/CSU) has presented its manifesto, the cabinet has officially adopted the 2022 budget and the fiscal outlook until 2025, and the Bundestag is concluding its final session in this legislative period. With this week’s developments, the last missing pieces are in place for campaigning season to start in earnest.

Given the situation in the polls, commentators have taken a great interest in comparisons between the manifestos of the CDU/CSU and the Greens. The CDU/CSU is taking an overall less determined approach to the all-important climate issue. There is full commitment to the goal of climate neutrality, brought forward to 2045 in the coalition’s recent tightening of the climate law. However, the climate issue is closely linked to the fiscal question. On that front, the CDU/CSU is sticking to its commitment to both the EU’s pandemic recovery fund and, beyond that, a swift return to sound fiscal policy, including the infamous “black zero” promise of balanced budgets. The budget and fiscal outlook agreed in cabinet today envisage some EUR 100bn in borrowing in 2022, but a return to the debt brake by 2023.

The CDU/CSU is trying to offer reliable management with a largely pragmatic and, thus, somewhat politically vague manifesto. This might be a promising strategy given its status as the country’s only remaining catch-all party. Policy moderation and compromise are necessary preconditions for keeping its diverse coalition of voters together. This, in turn, will be essential for wining by a margin that is large enough to make it impossible for the Greens to form an alternative coalition.

Relative caution on the climate front could also become a crucial CDU/CSU tactic in coalition talks and in a future government with the Greens. On the one hand, the CDU/CSU’s overall commitment to the climate transition enables such a coalition. But if this government materializes, it will be important for CDU/CSU not to try and “out-green” the Greens. In a “black-green” coalition taking Germany to net zero, the CDU/CSU will have to keep those constituencies on board that remain largely outside the reach of the Greens, from manufacturing and farming to non-urban and less educated voters.

This points to a crucial aspect ahead of the coming weeks of campaigning. Manifestos are important, as are, of course, election results. But Germany boasts a proportional electoral system and a complex model of cooperative federalism. This makes coalition formation and government management at least as relevant as pre-election plans. The CDU/CSU’s manifesto appears to be written with this reality in mind. In contrast, even the most ambitious Green agenda will still have to contend with the realities of, in fact, limited federal powers on projects such as, for instance, reforming the debt brake.

The biggest risk for the CDU/CSU emerges from its, in fact, limited coalition options. The relative vagueness of its manifesto should be read also as evidence of the balancing act faced by the alliance: it must distance itself from the Greens in the polls while remaining able to govern with them afterwards. Some in the CDU/CSU are speculating about a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the center-right FDP, but badly bruised from the Merkel years, the SPD is unlikely to have the power to serve under yet another centrist CDU chancellor.

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