Olaf Scholz was sworn in as the new German Chancellor on December 8th. His party, the Social Democrats, together with the Greens and the Liberals, will form a new government, and for the first time in 16 years, Angela Merkel will not be Chancellor. It is also the first time in 16 years that the Conservatives will find themselves in the opposition and the very first time that the German government consists of a three-party coalition – christened Die Ampel (the traffic light) based on the colour combination red, yellow and green, which represent the parties involved.
Two months after the election, the new government presented their coalition contract using the slogan ‘Venture for progress. For freedom, justice, and sustainability’, and at least theoretically, many of these promises are included in the contract, and a true break from previous politics can be achieved.
The previous German government has ignored many pressing issues of our time, from the green revolution to the digitalization of society and the re-modelling of its social systems in the light of an ageing population. The previous governments were not able to or willing to engage with these issues while putting out crises fires or downplaying the need for progress.
The coalition agreement as well as the preceding coalition talks suggest that the three parties see each other as equal members of this government. Yes, the distribution of seats in the cabinet reflect the election results (Social democrats 25,7%= seven ministerial posts + Chancellor, Greens 14,8%= five ministerial posts, Liberals 11,5%= four ministerial posts), however, all parties could solidify their most important political goals in the contract: The social democrats got the 12-Euro minimum wage, the Greens fought for the coal phase-out by 2030, and the Liberals ensured that all of this happens without any tax increases.
Each party could also secure their most desired ministerial posts headlined by the Greens, creating and controlling the Ministry of Economy and Climate Protection, as well as the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Environment. The Liberals were able to place Christian Lindner as the Finance Minister and play a large role in the digitalization by heading the Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. The Social Democrats are in place in the Ministry of Labour and Social and also get to nominate the now very influential role of the Health Minister. The latest announcement that Karl Lauterbach, a physician with a doctorate in public health, will take on this ministerial role, confirms the positive development that the ministerial posts are distributed on a competency-based system.
I have mentioned above that this is the first three-party coalition on the federal level, and it is legitimate to wonder about the stability of such a construct. Usually, we assume that two-party systems that end up with one ruling party (e.g., the US Congress) are the most stable. Yet, political scientist Karl-Rudolf Korte states that we must assume that the coalition is rather durable because parties with different ideological starting points need to find consensus in the coalition contract. This also weakens the impact the opposition could have on pushing through legislation.
Additionally, he explains that it was very telling that the coalition talks happened behind closed doors and without leaks which suggests that the parties have much trust in each other and view themselves as partners that can help achieve their own goals. This is a very different situation than the one we found in the talks of the coalition talks of the previous regimes that unwillingly agreed to a grand coalition. Furthermore, the parties could be very interested in good relations as it would be much easier to get re-elected in this three-party setup.
Formally, we can expect much continuity, particularly via Olaf Scholz’s chancellorship, which is built on similar traits to Merkel’s. Still, the subject matter of the coalition seems to be wildly different and is not interested in problem-solving or crisis management but is interested in shaping and modernizing the future of Germany. Whether they will be able to carry this plan out is another question, especially considering that the Coronavirus Crisis is far from being over and requires instant attention.
On paper, one of the biggest (positive) changes ought to be expected to come in climate policies, which have been featured as extremely important in the coalition document. The climate goals are very ambitious for a German government but have been already criticized by groups like ‘Friday’s for Future’ for not being sufficient to reach the 1.5-degree goal.
Nevertheless, it needs to be acknowledged that this is a serious policy change, and Germany could create many mimics that follow in its footsteps and steer towards a carbon-free future. The coalition also talks about creating leading hydrogen and electric mobility markets that, together with the newly coined concept of ‘green foreign policy’, might have positive spillover effects on other countries and help them become climate neutral. This is one of the areas where the Greens’ climate ambitions meet the Liberals emphasis on new technologies, and the shift to a new technology-openness and climate technology innovation can be observed.
The effort to make a change is also expressed, among other things, in the plan to lower the federal voting age to 16 (which should help all three parties to receive more votes), legalization plans for Cannabis, and the reformation of the pension and migration system. Ultimately, time will tell whether this coalition manages to stir things up to the level it strives to reach. I’ll say this: If we look back at this government in four years and most changes have not been implemented, it was not because of a lack of ambitious plans and enthusiasm.