In less than 24 hours the candidates for the German Chancellery representing the country’s two main political parties have at last emerged, with Annalena Baerbock for the Greens and Armin Laschet for the CDU-CSU. There was one decisive difference in this, with Baerbock’s candidature the result of a triumphant announcement while Laschet’s was the result of a psychodrama within the Union. It is a scenario that seems to favour the Greens, but also other German parties. The result of the September 26th elections might be more heterogeneous than expected.
Just before the names of the Green and Christian-Democrat candidates were announced, polls showed the CDU-CSU at 27%, the Greens at 23%, the SPD at 15%, the FDP at 9%, the AfD at 11% and the Linke at 7%. A few hours after the names of the candidates had been announced, in a debated instant poll, the Greens took the lead with 28%, while the CDU-CSU dropped significantly to 21% (Forsa-RTL poll). For the moment the most probable government alliance would be a Schwarz-Grün (Black-Green) coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Greens, but with a potential change of hierarchy moving it more towards a Green-Black alliance. There are, however, still 5 months to go before the elections and the current volatility of polls obviously does not present a clear scenario. The CDU may take the lead in other polls or, eventually, make a comeback after losing ground. At the same time, in particular scenarios, there could also be a chance for government alliance such as a Ampelkoalition (Greens, SPD, FDP), a Jamaika-Koalition (CDU-CSU, Greens, FDP), or even an improbable Rot-Rot-Grün alliance formed entirely by the Left (Greens, SPD, Linke). What is certain is that the match for the next Bundestagswahl is still an open one, while the choice of these two candidates already expresses the coordinates of the current positioning assumed by the Greens and the CDU-CSU as far as domestic policies are concerned as well as European and foreign policy.
The Greens’ rush to the front
After a very disciplined and civilised challenge with the party’s co-leader Robert Habeck, on April 19th Annalena Baerbock was chosen by the Greens as their candidate Chancellor. This is the first time in their history that the Greens have openly chosen a candidate for the country’s leadership. This because it is the first time that they can actually believe they have a chance to succeed. Baerbock is the symbol of the liberal-environmentalist party’s race to the front of the competition. The Greens have renounced the obliging charisma and image of an intellectual that characterises 51-year-old Habeck, choosing instead to rely on the political generation of 40-year-old Baerbock, with her studies in political science and a Master’s in Public International Law from the London School of Economics.
Baerbock effectively represents the final evolution of the German Greens: ecologist but business friendly, liberal but potentially open to realpolitik, empathic but with a distinctive managerial attitude. Baerbock’s media reception, both in Germany and abroad, is indicative of the fact that she at least meets all the expectations of the Western cosmopolitan liberal approach, including her radical defence of the values of an open society in the areas of multiculturalism, gender equality and civil rights. In the course of her blazing political career, Baerbock has in truth only been an MP in the Brandenburg Land and, since 2013, an MP in the Bundestag. To those who accuse her of being inexperienced, the Greens’ neo-candidate has however on a number of occasions replied that she represents “what is new and not the status quo”. This is a statement that in other circumstances would have been criticised, but that in today’s Germany is taken seriously, precisely because it is clear to what extent Baerbock is in truth the direct and almost perfect emanation of her party’s tactical-strategic experience. It is a party that for years has no longer been just the expression of environmentalist protest movements, but one that governs in coalitions formed in 11 Länder out of 16 and is the leading power in an economically crucial Land such as Baden-Württemberg.
It has been precisely the Baden-Württemberg, of which the Minister-President is the Greens’ Winfried Kretschmann, that has in recent years been the workshop for the encounter between environmentalism and industry (especially in the automobile sector such as Daimler and Porsche). This is a convergence that, considering the fundamental role played by the automotive industry in German economic power, will also be a cornerstone in the Greens’ possible participation in the next government or even that of Baerbock as Chancellor. The confrontation-alignment between environmentalism and productivity has developed a great deal in recent times, with the CEOs of large automotive groups (starting with Volkswagen) almost every month launching a new step forward in their race to e-mobility (and the in-house manufacturing of the batteries for these electric vehicles). More generally, on the other hand, a normal survey taken among German top-managers and financial decision-makers has, for the first time, confirmed the German economic elite’s preference specifically for a Schwarz-Grün (CDU-CSU and Greens) government. German political momentum is therefore also linked to this novelty: the economic world itself does not wants environmentalism to be in the opposition anymore, but is attempting instead to create an alliance in order to relaunch the productive primacy of all that is “made in Germany” within the European Green Deal.
Such an alliance is obviously not that simple. There are still differences in timing, speed, intensity and radicality between the Greens’ programme and the readiness of the economic world to embark on environmental change. The Greens wish to accelerate matters, for example by pushing de-carbonisation as much as possible, adding serious tax breaks for all eco-innovative companies and aiming for the registration of only zero-emission cars by 2030. This acceleration should also be driven through increased digitalisation and be sustained through new taxation on large incomes, a minimum wage of 12 euros an hour and greater domestic state investments. In Germany there are still however productive sectors and segments that fear that this plan to make the country a new eco-productive avant-garde nation also involves a strongly bureaucratic intermediate stage that could cause specific problems in competing with global competitors less attentive to protecting the climate and the environment. In recent months, the BDI, the German Confederation of Industries, has expressed concern in this sense. To truly combine at government level the needs of the German economy and an ecological revolution thus remains the first great issue for Baerbock and the Grünen.
The surprising emergence of the Greens will also come across other obstacles, especially at a geopolitical level. As far as Europe is concerned, the Greens promise they will continue their traditional Europeanism, also and above all as far as one crucial point is concerned: the institutionalisation of the Next Generation EU – Recovery Fund. For the Greens, the programme is a founding step towards European financial integration. This is a more advanced position vis à vis certain specific German economic, political and financial sectors that are instead far more hesitant and sceptical regards to a European mutualisation of financial destinies (when not strictly indispensable for the survival of the German system).
Another contradiction is also bound to emerge for the Greens, one that is even more structural (although much less discussed for the moment); the end of a complete overlap between Europeanism and Atlanticism. That is a superimposition that for the past 20 years has characterised the crucial nucleus of the Greens’ position regards to foreign policy. Today the Grünen are unquestionably the German political party most hostile to Russia and China, which they oppose above all on the ground of human rights violations. The geopolitical result, however, is a specific Green neo-Atlanticism, which is extremely critical also of trade bonds between Europe and China (see the CAI agreement) as well as between Europe and Russia (see the Nord Stream). Links and corridors to the East that seem however to have increasingly become in-depth elements in the balance of interests of EU states, in the traditional Franco-German axis as well as the German economic reality itself (with overall import-export exchanges amounting to 209 billion euros and Beijing as Germany’s most important trading partner for the fourth year in a row). Over the long term, therefore, these may be the geopolitical dilemmas that will become the greatest challenges for the political future of the German Grünen.
A weakened conservative front
No CDU-CSU Union candidate to the Chancellery has had such a difficult start as the one experienced by Armin Laschet. Elected president of the CDU just last January replacing Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer who had resigned, Laschet soon found himself facing an increasingly bitter challenge by the CSU (Bavarian sister-party) leader Markus Söder. For weeks he enjoyed the results of the polls, both among CDU-CSU voters as well as Germans in general. One important aspect at a time in which the Christian Democrats, following a 2020 consisting of a rally ’round the flag’ effect in favour of Merkel’s leadership, now consist of a consensus crisis caused by the management of the Covid pandemic and delays in the vaccination campaign. During the Laschet-Söder challenge, eventually ‘solved’ only on Tuesday April 20th, many leaders of the CDU Lander even sided with the Bavarian, worried when faced with the idea of an electoral debacle in September.
In the end, however, Laschet literally forced their hand from above, exploiting the support of his own party’s national presidium and establishing himself as a candidate and possible Chancellor. The dynamics of the choice made by the CDU-CSU’s Kanzlerkandidat did however inevitably reveal the profound crisis of a political party now orphaned of Merkel’s disciplining power and devoid of vivacity and ideas after 16 years of balanced Merkelism. Chosen as the most direct representative of Merkel’s centrism, Laschet is today the expression of the party’s self-conservationism and its institutionalisation as a centrist power always ready to mediate and compromise. It is a position that, also in view of Laschet’s experience as the current Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia (the most populated Land in Germany), makes the CDU candidate a good interlocutor for the aforementioned German economic and financial world, as well as for all the social parties that are active in the tradition of market social economics.
His ability to compromise also makes Laschet a possible good ally for the Greens or other coalition parties. However, while no one doubts these qualities in the CDU candidate’s management of power and alliances, at the same time his charisma and appeal are yet to be exhibited. Laschet clearly pays the price for being excessively bound to an idea of “weiter so” (“ahead like this”) in a country and a world that are instead experiencing a radical and at times shocking transformation. There are some who also fear that Laschet’s centrist stand may be unable to compete for any votes from the Greens and instead may cost many votes on the Right, in favour of the FDP’s liberal-liberalists or, furthermore, to the advantage of the AfD’s extreme Right (above all in states in Eastern Germany where the AfD has become territorialised as the political party of social dissatisfaction).
As far as EU affairs are concerned, Laschet promises to confirm his stand as a Europeanist tied to the Franco-German axis’ tradition and, simultaneously, geopolitically also very open to dialogues going well beyond this (albeit primary) transatlantic bond. On decisive issues such as that of the Next Generation EU, the CDU-CSU candidate would certainly follow the calculated stance opened by Merkel in 2020, loyal to the pragmatism linked to the slogan, repeated by Laschet just a few minutes after the announcement of his candidature, according to which “Germany is not powerful if Europe is not”. It is precisely on abandoning financial rigour that – according to Laschet and the CDU centrists – there is the risk of a consolidation of a new ultra-rigorist and progressively Eurosceptic front within the party’s conservative right-wing area.
Armin Laschet will now have five months to win back consensus within his own party, find a political narrative of his own and avoid that the September 26th elections become a failure for Christian Democrats. To achieve this he must also place his hope in the Merkel IV government’s ability to quickly overcome the pandemic with a vaccination campaign worthy of German’s reputation for efficiency (a brand that in the last few months has instead increasingly been proven wrong by facts). What is certain is that, whatever happens, the end of Merkelism will continue to consist of rifts, unknowns and reversals that will not only concern the CDU but the entire German political constellation. Even more clearly than expected, the end of Merkelism will not be a gala dinner.
Cover Photo: Co-leader of Germany’s Green party Annalena Baerbock gives a speech after the announcement of her candidacy for chancellor – Berlin, April 19, 2021 (A. Hilse / Pool / AFP).
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