November 29, 2021

There Will Be Change — But How Much and Where Will It Take Us?

Horst Kahrs

Germany’s new “traffic light coalition” promises a little bit of progress on crucial issues, but not much else

Horst Kahrs is a research fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis.

Protesters dressed like Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbock, and Christian Lindner outside of negotiations to form the next German government, 11 October 2021.

Photo: Paul Lovis Wagner / Campact, CC BY-NC 2.0

The results of the recent German federal election have shifted the country’s political landscape. On 24 November, the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP) presented their coalition agreement. There is no single dominant party-political force in the new Bundestag holding more than one third of the seats, which means no single party will be able to prevent an amendment to the Constitution.

The success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has meant that an anti-democratic party has managed to establish itself in the parliamentary system. Die Linke failed to meet the threshold to be seated in the Bundestag, and only managed to make its way in thanks to the three direct mandates; with many votes going to “other parties”, they were even able to form an official parliamentary group with their allocation of 39 MPs. All in all, the election results have signalled that it is time for “well-measured change”.

Backlog of Problems and Demands for a “New Start”

The debt brake and the “black zero” policy contributed to the accumulation of a number of problems during the last years of the Merkel government. It is evident in many areas of public infrastructure that the country has been cut to the bone — the state of schools, transport, and public welfare-oriented digitalization is deplorable. During the pandemic, Germany became an object of ridicule when its public health departments were found to be using fax machines to disseminate information.

At the same time, some things are functioning fairly well, and hundreds of billions of euro could easily be mobilized to mitigate the economic and social consequences of the pandemic. The German federal elections took place against this ambivalent backdrop: in a representative survey, more than 60 percent of Germans found the idea of a change in the federal government “good” — the highest figure since the early 1990s. Two thirds of the respondents believed that “most people in Germany” would like the incoming federal government to “make significant changes to policy in many areas”. More than half of the respondents named the following policy areas as those in which a “new political start” would be desirable: environmental and climate protection, refugee policy and integration, pensions, education, combating the corona pandemic, and housing and the housing market. Just under half of the respondents also named health, social affairs, social security, and digitalization as key areas. For those under the age of 30, digitalization, education, and environmental and climate protection were at the top of the list, while for those over 60 it was pensions, and refugee policy and integration.

The pandemic conditions have further highlighted which elements of our everyday life require change, but other man-made catastrophes have also been contributing to the feeling that things cannot continue as they are. However, ideas of where change is most urgently needed differed considerably according to age group, region, family background, and political orientation. The perspectives from which social conditions are viewed and from which interests, demands, and wishes for policies are formed and formulated, have become pluralistic in nature.

The election results reflected this, with no one party receiving more than a quarter of the votes. The question of “what played the biggest role in my deciding who to vote for” was answered in a myriad ways: social security was chosen by 28 percent of the respondents, while environment and climate and economy and work were both selected by 22 percent. Dealing with the pandemic came far behind with a mere 6 percent, and the remaining 22 percent of votes were distributed across a number of other topics such as taxes and finances (important for FDP voters), Europe and international politics (for CDU voters) or immigration (for AfD voters). There is no topic where a concrete political direction for a “new start” could be identified.

It is widely recognized that climate change and the next stage of digitalization will demand radical changes in the world of work and business, and in how people consume and live. Something must and should change, but any changes will need to be manageable and predictable within the context of the everyday life and life plans of the individual. Living conditions should remain stable throughout the course of this transformation — and in the wake of all the pandemic-related restrictions, a degree of reliability should be reintroduced into the rhythm of the day-to-day.

“Reliability” is also expected from those who will govern in future: people need to be reasonably confident that those in power know what they are doing, and that they would be able to adequately deal with an unexpected crisis. Parties and politicians are generally considered reliable if they have carefully considered policies, project a sense of unity and determination, and if all of this is presented in a convincing manner by those who speak on behalf of the party.

Winners and Losers

The SPD was able to win the election because it had learned from previous defeats. The election of new party leaders Esken and Walter-Bohrjans symbolically buried the Agenda 2010 political reforms. The choice of Scholz as the candidate for chancellor cemented a sense of unity in the party, which was then targeted at the unique circumstances of this election: the incumbent was not standing for office again, which meant a leadership change was inevitable. Scholz won back the Social-Democratic-minded Merkel voters, had proven that he could cope with crises, and was regarded as a man who would be unlikely to take any extreme political risks. The SPD was aided by the fact that the CDU/CSU appeared to be politically disoriented and divided, and was preoccupied with internal conflicts.

The winning parties were those that were “united” on both a political and a personal front and represented clear positions: the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP. The four losing parties — the CDU, the CSU, the AfD, and Die Linke — came across as divided and disorganized both in terms of party leadership, and to an extent also in the content of their campaigns.

The future “traffic light coalition” will have to reconcile a number of different and contradictory issues that proved decisive for the election: social security, more decisive climate policy, financial and tax policy, the welfare state, market regulation, and (socio-ecological) regulatory policy. The first year of government will determine whether this will be an alliance formed only for this legislative period, or a political transformation project for 2030 that will bring together different interest groups and different ideas about the state and society to form a “spirit of optimism from the political centre” and a “progressive centre” — as the parties have jointly framed the coalition.

The prospects are not bad. For the first time, the German Council of Economic Experts is no longer dogmatically neoliberal: it has called on the state to invest more in education, digitalization, and climate protection, and has stated that it makes economic sense to take on debt for this purpose and that there are ways to clear the investment backlog beyond the framework of the debt brake. The Federation of German Industries has proposed a comprehensive programme for the decarbonization of the technological capital stock and has revived its corporate alliance with IG Metall in order to foster a path to green capitalism. Climate-friendly technologies are seen as the future of the German economic export model.

However, as long as this economic model of (growing) export surpluses itself is not also called into question, a socio-economic imbalance will remain: the underfunding of public social services, reflected in substandard equipment, poor working conditions, and predominantly lower than average pay. In addition to this, a fatal structural conservatism is now emerging in the welfare state. In light of demographic developments, changes to the labour market, and pluralized lifestyles, there should finally be a political breakthrough heralding employment insurance, citizens insurance in health care, and an expansion of easily accessible public goods, in order to cushion the anticipated social consequences of decarbonization and distribute the related burdens fairly. If not, regressive protest and resistance movements will begin to grow.

The natural host for this resistance is the AfD. Within a short period of time, the party has managed to establish strong ideological ties with a large proportion of its voters, characterized by their own information media, specific social spheres, views on the political system, and “truths”. It would therefore seem likely that the party will at least be able to hold its position in the Bundestag in the next two elections.

And Chancellor Merkel’s old party? The CDU/CSU is facing serious decisions regarding its leadership and political programme, and it is completely unclear what a modern conservatism could look like. Adaptation to social change is needed in order to be able to produce majorities, as is the necessity of avoiding a push rightwards by radical right-wing forces, as has happened historically and has been exemplified in other Western European countries.

Die Linke’s Existential Crisis

Die Linke has experienced a political disaster. However, this failure did not happen overnight, but was programmatically and strategically in the making for years. It is essentially a consequence of its failure to transform itself from the successful anti-neoliberal movement of 2005 to 2010 into a democratic socialist party.

In its founding years, the party united different political and social milieus in protest against the SPD’s welfare-state policy, which was only able to agree on a basic policy programme with a great degree of difficulty. A strategic political centre did not emerge, only a fragile balance between different milieus and political currents. When the focus of public attention was no longer on social issues and shifted instead to refugee and integration policy, then to environmental and climate policy and the pandemic, the different political orientations — each of which was represented by a prominent individual — became increasingly apparent.

According to public perception, the party appeared increasingly divided, lacking a sense of credibility and reliability. For the first time since 2005, it was an open question as to who would become Chancellor. Die Linke paid a high price for failing to adapt to this new political environment. Good concepts in individual policy areas are of no use in electoral politics if they are not complemented by an overarching narrative as to where and how society should be changed, if the desire to be right outweighs the desire to effect change, and if ordinary outsiders — as potential coalition partners — do not know who can be expected to reliably speak for the party.

The times when electoral successes could be won by the self-positioning as a destination for disillusioned SPD and Greens voters are over for the time being, and the future cannot be built on their uncertain return. Disillusioned Social Democrats and Greens will remain Social Democrats and Greens. Anchoring itself in left-wing social movements will not guarantee votes at the ballot box, and in any case only reflects the small active portion of the electorate.

The question that needs to be addressed is why a democratic socialist party is even needed in Germany. The answer is that it is about the equality of all people: it is about equal social and democratic rights and opportunities to exercise them, about the creation of equal opportunities regardless of social background, about equal opportunities to participate in social and political life, about equal wages and labour rights, about the opportunity to actively participate in socio-ecological transformation. The systemic obstacles that stand in the way of this claim to equality in schools, public authorities, institutions, and social and economic structures must be resolutely combated. This perspective on society and political issues could be formed into a unique offer within the competition between the different political parties in a pluralistic society, with the potential to attract various interest groups.

The concept of a society rooted in equality and freedom presupposes a sense of cooperation. This is of crucial importance especially in times of international challenges that can only be dealt with on a global level. As long as cooperation is not embedded in European and global structures, resistance to a national decarbonisation of the economy will continue to increase.