Germany’s Social Democrats say Merkel’s party lost and should go into opposition
By Rick Noack and Loveday Morris,
BERLIN — A tussle for Germany’s chancellery was underway on Monday, in the wake of national elections, with the leaders of two parties seeking to negotiate their way to a governing coalition.
Olaf Scholz appears to have the easier path. The center-left Social Democrats ran a steady campaign under his leadership and won 26 percent of the vote, a turnaround for a party that started election season in a distant third. But Scholz’s best chance at a majority now depends on whether he can pull together three parties with clashing core policies.
Meanwhile, Armin Laschet declared Monday that he was ready to enter his own talks to form a government, with his center-right Christian Democrats at the top, despite a second-place finish and historically poor result for the party, for which he has received much of the blame.
Whatever the outcome, it could take months to resolve who will be next to lead Germany, making for a long goodbye before Angela Merkel, now the caretaker chancellor, is able to retire.
Scholz asserted on Monday that his party’s two-point advantage in the Sunday election gives him a mandate, and that Merkel’s Christian Democrats — who have dominated postwar politics — should humbly step aside.
The Christian Democrats and their smaller sister party “did not only lose significant votes, but they also received a message from the people: They shouldn’t be part of the government anymore, but should instead go into the opposition,” Scholz said from his party’s headquarters Monday morning.
Having ruled out a “grand coalition” with Merkel’s party — the arrangement in place in three of her four governments — Scholz is instead going for a “traffic light coalition,” with his Social Democrats (associated with red) partnering with the Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens. “Those three should lead the next government,” he said, noting that each had improved on their past election performance.
But there is nothing in German law that prevents a smaller party from trying to form a majority, and Laschet remained combative as he spoke to reporters on Monday. “No party can draw a clear government mandate from this result,” he said.
His Christian Democrats would likewise need to win over the Greens and the Free Democrats to form their preferred “Jamaica coalition,” an allusion to the colors of the country’s flag.
Even from within his own party, though, Laschet faces skepticism. The center-right conservatives won just 24 percent of the vote on Sunday, according to preliminary numbers. It was the lowest mark for the party since its founding in 1945.
“For us, this result is disappointing,” Helge Braun, a Christian Democrat and head of the Chancellery in Merkel’s outgoing government, told German radio. The party also trailed its center-left rivals in two local elections that took place on the same day, with a routing in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Olaf Scholz, leader of the Social Democrats, at a party meeting this week in Berlin.
And these various woes have been largely blamed on poor campaigning by Laschet. “It was a clear decision against the [Christian Democrats],” said Michael Kretschmer, the Christian Democratic leader of the federal state of Saxony. “Above all, what’s important to me now is that one accepts this defeat and result with humility.”
“We have lost this election,” he said, suggesting that the party’s combative response on Sunday night set “the wrong tone” and may have been reflective of a “wrong general attitude.” Kretschmer told German public radio, “I don’t see a clear governing mandate,” though he cautioned that the Christian Democrats should not be counted out of coalition talks altogether, especially if the risk of a power vacuum looms.
On Monday, Laschet acknowledged that he was partially responsible for his party’s weak performance, but he said he stands ready to enter coalition talks regardless. He has a lot to lose. The Christian Democrats would likely remove him as leader if it ends up in the opposition. The party would also be reticent to field him in upcoming state elections in North Rhine Westphalia, where he has been the state leader since 2017.
For their part, both the Greens, who won 15 percent of the vote, and the Free Democrats, who finished with 12 percent, say they are open to coalition talks. But before they can get together to crown someone for the chancellery, they have to resolve the conflicts between their two parties.
Annalena Baerbock of the Greens arrives for party meeting this week in Berlin.
“We have decided to hold preliminary talks with the Greens,” Free Democrats leader Christian Lindner said. While both parties are needed together in a coalition, they have deep differences in their policy positions, he said. “Given this polarization, it makes sense to find a common ground,” he said, expressing hope that they could form a “progressive center” of a new coalition.
The Greens will put action on climate change at the core of their demands. But Lindner’s party rails against regulatory measures that could inhibit businesses and instead advocates a climate policy rooted in technological advancement.
In Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, analysts and officials took comfort in a German government that would be pro-European, no matter which of the leading parties takes charge. At his Monday news conference, Scholz said that “the first topic for German politics will be to form a stronger and more sovereign Europe.”
However, some are concerned that protracted coalition talks in Berlin could delay key E.U. decisions, which the bloc could not make without its wealthiest and most influential member. “I hope that this will not lead to unnecessary delays,” Sven Giegold, a German member of the European Parliament from the Greens, said in a briefing.
Both Laschet and Scholz have said that they hope to have their version of a coalition deal by Christmas. But negotiations have gone on longer in the past. In 2017, it took more than five months, from September to March, to form a government. That time, efforts to create a “Jamaica coalition” collapsed when Lindner walked out of talks, and the Social Democrats were reluctantly forced back into a coalition with the Christian Democrats.
Forian Neuhof in Berlin and Reis Thebault in Brussels contributed to this report.