A Primer on Germany’s Election Year: Watch the Palette

Two regional ballots next month will mark the unofficial start of Germany’s campaign sprint to the federal election on Sep. 26. That in turn will be the occasion for a new leader to take over from Angela Merkel, after her 16 years as chancellor of the European Union’s largest country and economy. In short: It’s an important year.

Unfortunately, this also means that international readers interested in European politics are in for some confusion and frustration in the coming months. At least that’s my extrapolation from the two other German elections I covered, in 2013 and 2017. How German politics works, what matters and what doesn’t, and how policy might eventually change: All of this is hard to divine, much less convey, especially to “Anglo-Saxons.”

Technically, the German system isn’t uniquely baffling. Austria and Belgium, for example, are also federal states with parliamentary systems, proportional representation, and lots of quirky conventions on top. But the policy machine of Berlin, thanks to its relative weight in the EU and beyond, is seen as more important to suss out than, say, Vienna’s.

The difficulties start with personalities and style. In the U.S., U.K. or France, politicians (with monikers like “The Donald,” “BoJo,” “Jupiter,” etc.) tend to be colorful and the political options (left, right, populist, internationalist) on full display. By contrast, Germany’s mainstream politicians tend to be so drab and woolly you’d think they were doing it on purpose.

They actually might be. Historians such as Oxford University’s Timothy Garton Ash think Germans distrust passion and soaring oratory in politics because it still evokes the Nazi era. “Because of Hitler, the palette of contemporary German political rhetoric is deliberately narrow, cautious and boring,” he’s written.

The result is politicians like Armin Laschet, the new boss of the center-right Christian Democrats, or Olaf Scholz, the candidate for the center-left Social Democrats. Both have the charisma of a middle-management bookkeeper and more arms (“On the one hand … and on the other …”) than the Indian goddess Durga.

Their hairsplitting centrism has another source, however. It’s the centrality of coalitions in the German system. This means that any politician must collaborate in some form with adversaries. Scholz, for example, is in Merkel’s cabinet as finance minister. So he’s running against the Christian Democrats of Laschet and Merkel even as he’s governing with them. That’s confusing even for Germans.

Moreover, coalition geometry has become more complicated in the past generation. Postwar West Germany in effect had three political blocs: the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, with the color black; the Social Democrats, in red; and the pro-business Free Democrats, with yellow.

In the 1980s the environmental Greens joined this system. Then, after reunification, the descendants of East Germany’s communists entered parliament, later calling themselves The Left and picking a darker hue of red. More recently, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) joined in, with blue (though it’s a pariah that none of the other parties will partner with).

That leaves a lot of potential combinations in both the federal parliament and the 16 regional assemblies. And this is where German wonkery becomes incomprehensible to outsiders. The argot teems with color puns: A red-yellow-green coalition is a traffic light, a black-green one a kiwifruit, black-yellow-green would be Jamaica (after that country’s flag), and so on.

The most important thing to watch for this year is the next color combination in the federal government. A red-red-green government — that is, an all-left union of Social Democrats, The Left and Greens — would amount to a mini-revolution, and a disaster. But there appears to be no mathematical chance of that, because polls consistently show the three left parties jointly getting fewer than half the Bundestag seats.

This all but assures that the center-right blacks, as the strongest bloc, will lead a coalition. And their body language of late has leaned toward teaming up with the increasingly popular Greens to replace the Social Democrats. So the next German government could be a kiwifruit.

There was a time when this combination would have been unthinkable — the blacks’ original base was the clergy, the Greens were tree-hugging, free-loving hippies. These days, however, this coalition would be much less shocking. And that has to do with Germany’s federalism.

Germany’s second (but not “upper” in the Anglo-Saxon sense) house is the Bundesrat, or “federal council.” Unlike the U.S. Senate with its individually elected members, this assembly seats the 16 regional governments. But those administrations are also composed of coalitions, so that the color palette looks even more motley (see below).

A Primer on Germany’s Election Year: Watch the Palette

As you can see, the three major camps are already collaborating with one another somewhere. So they have an incentive to avoid alienating each other too much. Moreover, each is present in enough regional governments to form potential majorities in the second chamber, with the power to block bills coming in from the Bundestag. This is another reason why policy change in Germany is usually incremental. As any painter knows, a palette in which all colors are mixed eventually becomes mud-brown.

So what will happen in the run-up to Sep. 26? The main relay events will be several state elections, starting on March 14 with Baden-Wuerttemberg (currently governed by a kiwifruit coalition, but with the Greens in the lead) and Rhineland-Palatinate (a traffic light). In theory, these ballots could change the balance of power in the Bundesrat, but that looks unlikely.

In practice, they’ll be seen as early barometers of the national mood. But the analysis tends to get obtuse. Every state is different — especially between what used to be West and East Germany — and nobody really knows whether any given regional ballot says more about local or federal politics.

Worse, there’s no equivalent of America’s midterms — one big day with many simultaneous elections — that could serve as a reliable bellwether. Instead, there’s a “drip drip” of little results, says Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.

My advice is to keep squinting at the overall hue of the national palette. It’ll always tend toward mud-brown. But a black-green pattern is also becoming discernable. As you see in the Bundesrat chart, the two are already cohabiting monogamously in two state governments and in a menage-a-trois in three more. So they’re used to each other.

If Christian Democrats and Greens convince voters that they can finally reconcile ecology (Greens) and economy (blacks), they could together dominate the zeitgeist for years. They’d have to compromise on a lot, but that’s what German politicians do.

Overall, I’d say that German policy will become slightly more fiscally dovish, ecologically hawkish, pro-European and anti-Russian. As ever, there will be no sudden moves or big leaps — unless, of course, the world around Germany changes radically, which can’t be ruled out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

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