German election: Could there soon be a left-wing government?

Chancellor Angela Merkel may be anxiously awaiting election day on September 26. Recent opinion polls indicate that after 16 years with her as head of government, the conservatives could end up in opposition.

In Thursday’s Deutschlandtrend opinion poll, her centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), together with their Bavarian sister party, the CSU, came in at just 20 per cent. The clear number one, was the conservatives’ current coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). If these numbers turn out correct, come election day, the SPD candidate Olaf Scholz could form a coalition with the Greens (16 per cent) and the socialist Left Party (6 per cent).

But does he even want to?

Unreconcilable positions on security

German parties are often referred to by their colours, where red stands for left-leaning, green for environmentalists, and black for conservatives. So could a “red-red-green” coalition come to pass at the federal level? Angela Merkel, who is not running for reelection, has warned against this: “With me as chancellor, there could never be a coalition involving the Left,” she stated on Tuesday. “And whether this is shared by Olaf Scholz or not, that remains open.”

Two days earlier, during a live TV debate with the other two candidates for chancellor — the CDU’s Armin Laschet and the Green Party’s Annalena Baerbock — Scholz refused to be drawn about a possible coalition with the far-left.

Instead, Scholz, who currently serves as finance minister and vice-chancellor, named conditions for any coalition, including a commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The Left party wants to abolish NATO, put an end to all Bundeswehr missions abroad, and ban all weapons exports. Their election program states: “We call for the dissolution of NATO and its replacement by a collective security system with Russia’s participation.”

However, Germany’s withdrawal from NATO is an absolute no-go for the SPD and the Greens. For both parties, the transatlantic partnership is a pillar of their foreign policy.

So a red-red-green alliance is only conceivable if the Left party were to give in on this point. But there are no signs of that. In an interview with DW, the party’s co-chair and a top candidate for the election, Janine Wissler, reiterated her rejection of NATO: “After the disaster, we are currently experiencing in Afghanistan, I think there is one party that now has relatively little reason to reconsider its foreign policy positions. And that is the Left party.”

Although the Left party categorically rules out foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr, humanitarian “blue helmet” missions under the leadership of the United Nations (UN) might be a compromise.

There has also been some movement in the discussion about armed drones. These weapons, the use of which the Left party has flat-out rejected, are also controversial within the SPD. At their party conference in June, however, the Greens voted by a narrow majority in favour of using them to protect German soldiers if necessary.

Climate change, education, immigration

The overlap between the three parties on foreign and security policy is small. But in many other important areas, it should be easier for them to come together. Whether combatting climate change, education, finance, or health — programmatically they are relatively close. All are in favour of a complete switch to renewable energies, better digital infrastructure in administration, schools, and businesses, and higher minimum wages. A red-red-green coalition is also unlikely to fail over higher taxes, especially for the wealthy, which the Left Party and the SPD advocate for.

Things could get more difficult when it comes to migration and asylum policy. Although all three parties do not intend to curb immigration, the SPD candidate for chancellor has spoken out in favour of continuing deportations also to Afghanistan in certain cases. Olaf Scholz left no doubt about this in the DW interview: “It is right that someone who commits serious crimes cannot count on being able to stay here. And that is also part of the protection of refugees.”

Coalition alternatives

In purely mathematical terms, more alliances than ever seem possible. In theory, the SPD and the Greens are the most flexible. They could potentially team up with any party except for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) – and indeed have already done so on the state level.

The pro-free market Free Democrats (FDP) and the CDU/CSU, on the other hand, reject coalitions with the left as a matter of principle. If the conservatives want Armin Laschet to become chancellor in the post-Merkel era, their only hope at the moment is to head a coalition with the FDP and the Green Party. This was already on the horizon after the 2017 federal election but failed after weeks of talks due to the surprising withdrawal of the FDP under leader Christian Lindner.

Longtime observers of German politics such as Oskar Niedermayer believe that a red-red-green coalition is quite likely. The differences in foreign and security policy ideas are the “biggest stumbling block,” he said. But people from all three parties are already working on “finding lines of compromise,” the political scientist told DW back in May.

Another ‘red socks’ campaign?

The CDU’s latest warnings against a left-wing coalition bring back memories of the “red socks campaign” in 1994. “Red sock” is a term that is mostly used in a derogatory way for a person on the political left. It was famously used by the centre-right in their general election campaign back then to warn against a possible coalition of the SPD with the Greens and the predecessor to the Left Party, the PDS. The CDU printed large-format campaign posters showing a clothesline with a red sock dangling from a green clip. “To the future, but not in red socks,” it read.

The CDU’s coalition partner at the time, the FDP, bought into the narrative: “Those who don’t want socialists and communists to again have a say, must choose the middle-class by voting for a strong FDP,” said then-party chairman and later Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

The strategy may have paid off: This allusion to a communist threat and the emotions of the Cold War was seen as one of the decisive factors for the narrow election victory of Helmut Kohl’s black-yellow coalition government that year.

Critics lashed out at the CDU’s campaign, calling it an all-too-obvious attempt to discredit left-wingers. But the PDS took up the campaign aggressively and reinterpreted it as advertising for itself, printing red socks on a number of promotional items.

The SPD has always tread lightly on the issue of cooperation with the Left Party. Now, as the conservatives are digging the trenches along the same old lines, SPD candidate Olaf Scholz has taken care not to commit to any alliance — but to not rule anything out either.

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