German Politics Is Upside Down

One outcome of Germany’s federal election on Sep. 26 already seems very likely. A woman with intellectual heft and impressive trampoline skills, but no government experience, will become either chancellor or vice chancellor.

Her name is Annalena Baerbock. She’s one of two leaders of the environmentalist Green party and as of this week also its candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.

That her quest isn’t considered pie in the sky is itself stunning. Her party was only founded in 1980, the year she was born. For years it resembled a hirsute and hippie ashram more than a mature political force. But these days the Greens are seated comfortably in the political center of Europe’s largest economy.

Having won less than 9% in the election of 2017, they’re now polling above 20%. This makes them the second-strongest party after the conservative bloc. Crucially, it also appears to make them indispensable in forming the next coalition. Either they will lead a government alongside other parties, with Baerbock as chancellor; or they’ll be junior partners to the conservatives, with Baerbock ranking second.

What makes this situation even stranger is that Germany’s conservatives have unexpectedly started playing against type. They used to be known for their discipline and focus on winning, fielding five chancellors since 1949 and governing for 52 of postwar Germany’s 72 years, including the 16 under Merkel. But she’s retiring later this year, and in place of an orderly succession, two stubborn alpha males have been brawling for the honor of running to succeed her.

The ostensible winner is Armin Laschet, premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and boss of the Christian Democratic Union, the party that carries the conservative banner in 15 of Germany’s 16 states. That’s assuming his candidacy is accepted in the coming hours by his rival, Markus Soeder. He’s the premier of Bavaria and leader of the Christian Social Union, which exists only in that state and is considered the CDU’s “sister party.”

By convention, the two Union parties form one caucus in the federal parliament and field a common candidate for chancellor. According to etiquette, they’re expected to agree on this joint nomination amicably. Merkel, for example, yielded to a CSU candidate in 2002 before standing herself in 2005 and onward. This time, however, that process broke down in thinly veiled animosity.

Laschet argued that, as leader of the larger “sister,” he should be candidate. Having only become the CDU’s boss in January, after a bruising three-way struggle, he also feared looking like a lame duck without the candidacy. Soeder countered by pointing to the polls, which make him look like a winner and Laschet like a loser. If Germans could choose their chancellor directly, according to a survey by Forsa, Soeder would beat Baerbock by 40% to 23%; Laschet would lose to her by 19% to 23%.

As the stand-off threatened to cleave the conservative camp, Soeder eventually hinted that he would accept a final verdict by the CDU’s assembled party elders this week. The Christian Democrats then grudgingly — after six hours of talks through the night from Monday to Tuesday — renewed their support for Laschet.

The Greens are milking this situation as best they can. In the past, they’ve often been the ones descending into infighting. But this time Baerbock and her co-leader Robert Habeck, a novelist with experience in regional government, made sure to agree discreetly — indeed amicably — on which of them would carry the torch.

This creates a peculiar inversion in the country’s political mise-en-scene. The side that’s usually known for staying on message is tearing itself apart. The party that used to be a synonym for chaos is a picture of harmony and cohesion.

Here’s my advice to the conservatives: Now that Laschet appears to be your man, stop yearning for Soeder’s popularity numbers and rally around the common candidate. With luck voters won’t remember or care about the intramural fighting come September.

And here’s my advice to the Greens: You finally have a chance — whether as senior or junior partners in government — to steer Europe’s largest economy in a new direction, which is the quest to reconcile the economy and ecology. Don’t waste it.

By that I mean that throughout the campaign, the Greens should keep their coalition options open toward all the other centrist parties, from the conservatives to the center-left Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats. But they should rule out any pact with The Left, the radical socialists who descend largely from East Germany’s communist regime.

As I’ve explained before, a deal with The Left and the Social Democrats is one path to power for the Greens. In that sense, The Left is to them what the far-right Alternative for Germany is to the conservatives: a temptation to be resisted for the sake of democracy, decency and progress. As long as Baerbock understands this, Germany will be fine after Sep. 26, no matter the final count.

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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