BERLIN – After a frenzied week of political speed dating between five German political parties eager to form the next government, three of them on Thursday took the first – very timid – step towards forming a kind of alliance that the country has never seen it before, trying to bridge deep ideological divides.
On Thursday Olaf Scholz, the future German Chancellor whose Social Democrats narrowly won last month’s elections, met with the leaders of the Greens and Free Democrats for their first talks – or, to be more precise, talks on d ‘other talks – to try to create a coalition. All came out hopeful about their prospects.
After a lackluster campaign among candidates who appeared allergic to interest, the prospect of a three-way relationship plunged the German media into a vertigo of sexual innuendo – before party leaders even turned off their phones, n ‘lower the blinds, close the door and did not emerge for hours on Thursday.
Journalists and political analysts have shown an unlimited fondness for references to flirtation, romance, business and, of course, a threesome – or, in German, a “float Dreier.” On the political talk show “Tough but Fair”, the host asked, “Who needs Tinder when dating in Berlin has started so forcefully?” The news magazine Der Spiegel asked Mr Scholz in an interview if he expected to find “love” in a three-way coalition.
“Affection,” he replied. Playing with the metaphor, he added, “True affection develops when you get seriously involved with each other.”
All kidding aside, the stakes are high. To form Germany’s first tripartite coalition since the 1950s, encompassing progressive Greens, center-left Social Democrats, and Libertarian Free Democrats, leaders must resolve – or at least erase – fundamental differences over taxes, regulations and related roles. government and business. None of the three has ever participated in a tripartite government before.
“Germany is learning politics again,” said Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens. “And this learning means a certain willingness to open up to new processes.
Whoever governs will lead Europe’s largest economy, at the heart of the European Union, struggling to find a foothold in the midst of a pandemic, economic hardship and the United States’ lingering rivalry with China.
A faltering coalition would be a marked departure from the long line of impassive post-war governments.
Usually one faction, either the conservative Christian Democrats and their sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union, or the Social Democrats clearly dominated coalitions with much weaker and dependent parties that worked hard but achieved little fame. For 12 years there have been “grand coalitions” between conservatives and social democrats, maintained in large part by the popularity and authority of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The system was very conservative but it always produced a stable match,” said John Kornblum, a former US ambassador to Germany who has lived in Berlin on and off since the 1960s. But these days, he stressed , “monogamy is no longer an option”.
The two main parties have no desire to work together again, Merkel is retiring and neither party won even 26% of the vote, giving Free Democrats and Greens more leverage than ever before. Mr Scholz needs both of them to muster a majority in parliament, but they could walk away at any time and step into the shoes of the Christian Democrats, who have signaled they are still available.
The Christian Democrats finished in second place in the election, but it was the worst performance in their history, in part because of the unpopularity of their leader, Armin Laschet. Mr Laschet said he would step down as party leader, although he was not clear on the timing, calling for “a fresh start with new people” which could facilitate the formation of a coalition.
But for now at least, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats seem keen to engage with the Social Democrats. After concluding their meeting on Thursday, the three sides made a joint statement on their intention to deepen their conversations next week, moving from “pre-exploratory” talks to “exploratory” talks, to see if any “real” talks. coalition “are viable. line. The whole process should take months.
“We have a basis of trust,” said Michael Kellner, managing director of the Greens. “We can talk about anything with confidence and with confidence. “
Volker Wissing, General Secretary of the Free Democrats, confirmed: “Today’s conversation gives us courage even though it is a difficult path.
Standing between the other two, Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the Social Democrats, called the talks “very harmonious” but refused to make sense of a timetable. “We will take the time we need,” he said.
Other parliamentary democracies have experience of disparate governments made up of seemingly inadequate partners. Israel’s new coalition consists of eight parties. In the Netherlands, 17 parties have won seats in parliament this year, and it will take at least four to secure a majority.
Germany has managed to avoid such complexities in part by forging marriages of convenience between the two main parties.
“No one was in love, but it was considered best for children, so to speak,” said Andrea Römmele, dean of the Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance.
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But voters rebelled, stretching their ballots more widely and forcing politicians to abandon the idea that the two traditional ruling factions – which won less than half the vote – are dominant.
“A lot of people are hungry for something new,” Ms. Römmele said.
Some are hungrier than others. Christian Democrats are used to doing things their own way, having ruled 52 out of 72 years, and they have loudly announced their availability.
But it didn’t help that the Tories spoke outside of school, bragging to the nation’s largest tabloid newspaper about how much Free Democrats wanted them.
Yet the most intense political court has involved the Greens, who came third with 15 percent of the vote, and are hungry for power. The no-mask selfie the Greens and Free Democrats took from their very first discussions about the collaboration and posted on Instagram quickly became a German social media meme to the song “We Are Family.”
But the two sides have very different interests and historical ties.
While the Free Democrats would prefer to team up with the Christian Democrats, the Greens are clearly more interested in resuming a partnership with the Social Democrats, with whom they co-governed from 1998 to 2005.
Some believe that the differences between the Greens and the Free Democrats are ultimately too great to be resolved. The Greens want to raise taxes for the rich, which the Free Democrats oppose. Greens believe the state is essential to tackle climate change and social issues, while Free Democrats rely on industry.
Mr Lindner, the leader of the Free Democrats, set his conditions this week: no new taxes and a commitment to a balanced budget.
“The main thing is to change the trend from a decade of fiscal and bureaucratic burdens to a decade of relief,” he told the Bild tabloid on Sunday.
Whatever happens, it will likely take some time to strike a deal. The last government of Merkel took five months to forge.
“Coalition treaties are like marriage contracts,” said Ms. Römmele of the Hertie School.
“It’s like one partner wants children and the other doesn’t – how do you get over that? ” she asked.
“In the meantime, you need a big idea,” she added. “The big vision, something that says: this is the right thing and we will be happier together than apart.”
Melissa Eddy and Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting.