Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd, and Four’s a Misfortune: Germany’s Next Coalition
An August 2023 ARD-Deutschlandtrend survey found that 79% of Germans are dissatisfied with the governing coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP), including a majority of SPD and FDP voters and 48% of Greens. In-fighting over climate, budget, and defense have worn down the so-called traffic light coalition, causing consensus on these and other crucial issues to remain elusive.
The coalition’s differing policy priorities, combined with a lack of clear leadership from Chancellor Olaf Scholz to mediate amongst the partners, has hindered its ability to govern cohesively and voters have taken notice. Although the next federal election is more than two years out, different alignment possibilities for 2025 are already emerging, in part due to concerns about the looming shadow of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The same ARD-Deutschlandtrend poll has the AfD garnering 21% of the vote if the election were held today, officially overtaking Scholz’s SPD which polled at 17% and steadily creeping up on the Christian Democrats’/Christian Social Union’s (CDU/CSU) lead at 27%.
As the AfD’s popularity continues to rise and the party has begun winning elections at the local level in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt, there are real concerns that it could be a coalition contender in 2025. The five other parties (SPD, Greens, FDP, CDU/CSU, and the Left Party) in the Bundestag have agreed to a firewall (Brandmauer) between them and the AfD, a non-binding understanding that prevents cooperation with the far-right party in any form. This decision is supported by the majority of the electorate; 73% of Germans are against a coalition that includes the AfD. But as the AfD’s numbers surge and satisfaction with mainstream parties drops, this resolve may weaken. It should also be noted that in eastern Germany, where the AfD consistently polls higher than in the rest of the country, the same survey found support to exclude the far-right party was just 60%. This signals potential voter appetite for breaching the firewall following state-level elections in Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Saxony in 2024 if the AfD performs as well as the polls suggest. Recent comments by CDU-leader Friedrich Merz in an interview with ZDF only strengthen this assumption, when he stated that the CDU may look to work with the AfD at the municipal level following the results in Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt. Although Merz walked back his statement and reaffirmed his party’s commitment to the firewall in all forms, it is clear that while the principle of exclusion still applies in theory, it is beginning to wane in practice.
Whichever parties make it into the governing coalition will have to be united in their approach to inspire confidence from an increasingly disillusioned electorate.
Based on current projections, the Left Party may not even clear the 5% threshold needed for Bundestag representation in the next election, leaving the burden to build a coalition on the three current members plus the CDU/CSU. Some unconventional coalition formations have already been proposed, including a never before seen four-way coalition. The dissatisfaction with the traffic light coalition has been made clear; adding the CDU/CSU to the mix in 2025 will exacerbate these tensions. Any unity that comes from a joint anti-AfD banner could soon be overridden by diverging views among members on budget constraints, defense priorities, climate policy, and immigration reform.
At the state level, the politics are different. All of these parties except the AfD govern with one another in different configurations, some with surprising cohesiveness given disparate national party priorities. In Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, North-Rhine Westphalia, and Schleswig-Holstein the CDU and Greens have formed a coalition; in Saxony, the CDU, SPD, and Greens govern; and in Rhineland-Palatinate, the traffic light coalition plays out on a smaller scale. This shows that there are many potential ways to form a coalition, should certain parties get the necessary votes. However, it should not be overlooked that a key reason why there is more cohesion among partners at the regional level is because local politics have inherently different priorities. While all governance is complex and contentious in its own right, there is typically less room for partisan discord when the debate is over repairing roads in Bremen than about sending tanks to Ukraine. Nonetheless, positive cross-party collaboration at the state level can be a gateway to more constructive national dialogue, and party leaders would be wise to note what is currently working well on a smaller scale when considering 2025 national amalgamations.
If the cost of preserving democratic order is poor governance, there’s a strong chance the AfD will use this to its advantage and gain even more support from disgruntled voters, who may call for a dismantling of the firewall for future coalitions.
In all likelihood, the next national governing coalition will not involve four parties, but will have to contain at least three to work around the AfD. However, just keeping the AfD out will not be enough—whichever parties make it into the governing coalition will have to be united in their approach to inspire confidence from an increasingly disillusioned electorate. The open hostility and mistrust within the current coalition around the heating law this spring demonstrates how quickly internal strife can become a matter of public concern. The heating law, which proposed to replace older heating units in buildings by requiring installation of more climate-friendly systems, received pushback from the FDP over the replacement cost and timeline for homeowners. The Greens maintained that the national government would provide subsidies to ease the cost of transition, and that the ambitious measure was needed for Germany to reach its climate goals. In March 2023, before the heating law was widely discussed, satisfaction with the federal government as a whole was at 33%. By June, after three months of finger-pointing by politicians in interviews and on social media, the public’s satisfaction dropped to 20%, the lowest level in 13 years, with strife over the heating law cited as a major factor for the discontent.
A multi-party system will inevitably by design have a number of competing policy priorities. No matter who is part of the next coalition, it will not be easy for the next government to balance Germany’s needs in light of the recession, high energy prices, migration influx, and the war in Ukraine. These challenges may force some parties to table longer-term objectives for the sake of shorter-term stabilization, and will require all parties to compromise for the good of the whole. The next governing coalition will need to be formed as an exercise in trust as the electorate tries to predict which parties and political figures are able to put aside ego and focus on collectively rebuilding voter confidence to prove that there is no other alternative for a democratic Germany. However, if the cost of preserving democratic order is poor governance, there’s a strong chance the AfD will use this to its advantage and gain even more support from disgruntled voters, who may call for a dismantling of the firewall for future coalitions. An ineffectual national government in 2025 will play right into the AfD’s hands, pushing protest voters to their xenophobic, pro-Russia, anti-climate platform out of frustration with the other parties.
Poll results two years before an election is not a reliable guarantor of future votes, and much can change between now and 2025. But if the AfD does capitalize on even 75% of its current figures in the next election, it will come close to a vote share that means the party no longer can be isolated or excluded. Now is the time for other parties to rise above partisan in-fighting and demonstrate cohesive governance with the goal of swaying voters away from the AfD entirely, or at the very least maintaining confidence in a coalition without them. The AfD has no place in a liberal democratic governing coalition. But if that is the only thing mainstream parties can agree on, it may not be enough to keep them out.