Op-Ed: The End of the Merkel Era and the Rise of Social Liberalism : Implications for Germany and Europe

Photo Credit: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly 

By Andrew Campos
Contributing Writer

After sixteen years of unimpeded rule in the federal government, the center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), led by the unifying and captivating Angela Merkel, has relinquished control of the German federal parliament known as the Bundestag. During her term as Chancellor, Angela Merkel managed several diverse coalitions and promoted a conciliatory approach to healing divisions between the member states of the European Union as well as between East and West Germany. Her signature proclamation, Wir schiffen das (we can do it), encouraged cooperation within the EU during the Eurozone crisis and the 2015 refugee crisis. However, Merkel’s fellow CDU member and successor to the chancellery, Armin Laschet, proved to be a divisive candidate, especially among members of his own party. After a series of economic lockdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and faltering approval ratings of the CDU/CSU, it became evident that the German people were due for a change of leadership in the Reichstag. Now, the German electorate has spoken, and has approved the formation of a new group of socially-minded actors in the Bundestag. These actors have created the “traffic-light” coalition, spearheaded by the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) alongside the center-left Alliance 90/The Greens, and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and named after the party colors of each respective member (SPD: Red, FDP: Yellow, and The Greens/Alliance 90: Green).

The “traffic-light” coalition came to fruition after the 2021 German federal elections, when the SPD earned 25.7% of votes from Germany’s 299 constituencies and 206 total seats in the Bundestag, the Greens with 14.8% of votes and 118 seats in the Bundestag, and the FDP with 11.5% of votes and 92 seats in the Bundestag. All of the parties involved in the coalition gained additional seats in the Bundestag relative to the 2017 federal elections, whereas the CDU/CSU lost fifty seats. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party also lost 11 seats in the Bundestag, signaling a gradual decline in interest for populist right-wing politics in Germany. Research on the 2020 U.S. primary and French municipal elections indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic increased voters’ preferences for mainstream, establishment candidates between 7 to 15 percentage points in a “flight to safety.” As the pandemic undermined Germans’ economic well-being, the left-leaning parties’ campaign promises to increase social programs and bolster government spending motivated voters to renounce their support for the right-wing populist AfD as well as the preeminent CDU/CSU, which has held the German Chancellery for 50 of the Federal Republic’s 72 year existence. Though many of their interests align, the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP must agree on a comprehensive plan to successfully operate the “traffic-light.”

Following the 2021 general election, the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP have committed to discussions on the framework and responsibilities of the “traffic-light” coalition. Each party has received considerable concessions, particularly the primary campaign promises of the respective parties. The SPD and Greens successfully secured a plan to increase the German minimum wage from €9.35/hour to €12/hour, halt increases to corporate or wealth taxes, reduce deficit-spending for the FDP, as well as a commitment to cease the use of coal power plants by 2030 for the Greens. More importantly, all three parties have agreed to fundamental plans such as, but not limited to: modernizing Germany’s digital infrastructure, increasing climate action programs reliant on market-based regulations, strengthening German workers’ rights, reforming Germany’s current pension system, addressing child poverty, ensuring universal child care, constructing affordable housing to combat housing shortages in urban areas, protecting multiculturalism and minority rights, and above all, continuing Berlin’s commitment to the European Union. The Bundesrepublik (Federal Republic) that the “traffic-light” coalition intends to lead espouses liberal values such as democracy, the rule of law, and the unique kind of multilateral cooperation that Merkel championed, yet it offers a social approach that contrasts with Merkel’s more moderate, unifying politics.

Beyond Germany, other center-left parties attempt to replicate the SPD’s electoral success, some to no avail. Winning a plurality of votes, Norway’s Labour Party aims to build a left-wing coalition, and if successful, the federal governments of all five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway) will be led by left-leaning social democratic parties. On the other hand, French Socialist Party presidential candidate, Anne Hidalgo, lags vastly behind in election polls to incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen, as well as against ideological counterparts like left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Labour Party maintained its nine seats in the Dutch States General compared to the far-right parties, Party For Freedom and Forum for Democracy, which earned a total of 17 seats and 8 seats respectively. Despite the success of the liberal progressive Pirates and Mayors coalition, which managed to earn a total of 37 seats in the Czech national parliament, the Czech Social Democratic Party failed to secure a single seat, losing all 14 of its seats. With a rapid decline in popularity and seats in their respective national parliaments, European center-left parties are increasingly losing the authority to influence policy necessary to address economic fallout from the pandemic. The SPD, Greens, and FDP greatly benefitted from popular demands for social and economic changes, yet it is apparent that not every European country desires a left-leaning government, with some continuing to experience a growing far-right movement. 

Though center-left coalitions have been passive in foreign policy, particularly SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt’s conciliatory Ostpolitik (Eastern Policy) diplomacy with East Germany and the Soviet Union, and primarily focused their administrations on domestic issues, the members of the “traffic-light” coalition believe Germany must uphold a strong stance against autocratic governments and human rights violations. In the lead-up to the federal election, Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock affirmed that Germany should start “increasing the pressure on Russia” after encroachments on Ukraine. Furthermore, European affairs with China are a “competition of systems” between “authoritarian forces versus liberal democracies.” Katarina Barley, SPD member and Vice President of the European Parliament, asserts that the SPD-FDP-Greens coalition “will recognize that dialogue is important” but will not abstain from employing coercive action compared to Merkel’s “dialogue, building bridges, no confrontation” diplomacy. While Merkel’s irenic attitude alleviated tensions between the European Union and Russia/China, as well among EU member states, it granted far too many concessions to illiberal despots in Hungary and Poland who subvert EU regulations and civil liberties in their countries. To reinforce credibility of the European Union and signal resolve for democratic principles, the “traffic-light” coalition must convey to its partners in Europe and the international community that it will punish any transgressors of the rule of law in the liberal international order.
From its origins as a Marxist party devoted to socialist principles to a pragmatic center-left party that endeavors to achieve social justice in a social market economy, the SPD presently stands at the forefront of German politics and the helm of the European Union. Coalition talks are ongoing, but so far, the coalition parties have agreed to a set of fundamental goals and objectives. Center-left parties throughout Europe, especially social democrats, look towards Germany for motivation and guidance in building governments steadfast to social liberalism. Angela Merkel, Europe’s Mutti (Mother), has left the SPD-FDP-Greens coalition some big shoes to fill. Let’s wait and see if the shoe fits.

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