Less than three weeks ahead of the Bundestag elections, the Social Democrats (SPD) of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz continue to build out their lead in the polls. The TV debate among the three chancellor candidates on 12 September might be one of the last opportunities for Armin Laschet to halt the decline of his Christian alliance (CDU/CSU) in the polls. In this increasingly desperate situation, CDU/CSU have reverted to their traditionally shrill warnings of a left-of-center government of the SPD, the Greens, and the post- communist Left. This even included respective attacks from Chancellor Angela Merkel on Scholz in yesterday’s last Bundestag debate before the election.
However, such a “red-red-green” coalition remains unlikely. Recall that for most of Merkel’s time at the chancellery, Bundestag majorities would have allowed for the creation of such an alternative government. However, the SPD repeatedly opted against it, instead serving as Merkel’s loyal junior partners. Behind this are continued SPD concerns over the Left’s programmatic stance, especially in the areas of foreign and security policy. For example, having long rejected military engagement in Afghanistan, the party, in a recent Bundestag vote, did not even support a mere rescue mission to fly endangered people out of Kabul. This has served as another reminder of the reasons for SPD skepticism towards the Left – even if chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz refuses to formally rule out future cooperation.
Party motivations in this game are mainly tactical. The Left has been struggling with the 5% hurdle for Bundestag representation; debates about a potential government involvement could help the party prove its relevance to its core voters. For CDU/CSU, meanwhile, warnings of “red-red-green” are a desperate attempt to mobilize voters after a so-far dismal campaign; if this helped the Left to stay in the Bundestag, it would have the additional benefit of complicating government formation for Scholz. The SPD candidate, in contrast, can have no interest in taking any strong position vis-a-vis the Left. His hope must be that the party continues its recent trajectory into political irrelevance: in a Bundestag without the Left, a purely “red-green” government of the SPD and the Greens might even have a majority on its own.
To keep the conversation going, the Left has hastily presented an outline of demands for potential coalition talks. On issues such as hiking the minimum wage and investment in affordable housing, SPD overlaps with the Left would indeed be greater than with the other potential partner, the center-right Liberals (FDP). But a last-minute list of topics is likely too little, too late for a joint government. A new coalition is usually prepared over years of building personal and programmatic links, in this case, with the SPD and the Greens, especially on the thorny issue of foreign policy – something into which the Left has never invested any serious work.
Past the election, therefore, the crucial factor will probably be the FDP’s demands for a government with the SPD and the Greens. Such a “traffic light” coalition (and an FDP finance minister) would be unlikely to not bode well for European expectations of fiscal expansion and substantially greater investment. Another signpost to watch is whether the FDP would even try to use its kingmaker role to push for other combinations, such as the SPD replacing the Greens with CDU/CSU. Government formation could again take some time.