View: German election results indicate change with continuity

Germany is the largest economy of Europe, deeply integrated in the world economy and at the centre of the European integration project. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has been the de facto leader of the European Union (EU). So what happens in German politics will have implications for Europe and the World economy.

Preliminary results from German elections indicate that in a 735 seat Bundestag, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) with 206 seats will be the largest party. It is just ahead of the conservative alliance of Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) which won 196 seats. The Greens have made big gains and ended at the third place with 118 seats. The Free Democrats (FDP) and the Left got 92 and 39 seats respectively. The far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) received more than 10% votes and 83 seats.

The elections have been very tight from the beginning. Just a few months ago, Greens with their first ever chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock were leading the polls. Then conservatives were doing well. And in the final results, SPD have come at the top.

The final shape of the government will only become clear once coalition negotiations are completed. This may take a few weeks or months. Coalitions are the norm in Germany. Almost all governments since 1949 have been combinations of various political parties. No political party wants to be a partner with the far right AfD. Except this, all sorts of combinations are possible, including a grand coalition between the two major parties.

After 16 years as a Chancellor, Angela Merkel did not stand for elections. She backed her centre-right CDU’s candidate Armin Laschet to succeed her. But now the Social Democrat Olaf Scholz seems to have a better chance.

Though results look fragmented, they indicate change with continuity. The SDP’s Olaf Scholz (with Greens and Liberals) may represent change. But he has been serving as vice- chancellor and the Minister of Finance in a coalition with Angela Merkel in a ‘grand coalition’ of two major parties. In fact, he was seen by many voters as a natural successor of Merkel rather than her own party’s candidate. Many people who have been voting for Merkel without strong commitment to the CDU might have voted for him. He has played an important role in shaping German policies in the last few years. He presented himself as a mature, pragmatic and sober leader, qualities identified with Merkel.

But whosoever succeeds Merkel, it will be difficult to replace her. For a generation, she was an undisputed leader of Germany and Europe. As she overcame so many European crises, she was even labelled as “crisis Chancellor”. Merkel successfully handled crises linked to the Eurozone, refugees, Brexit and finally the pandemic. She also managed German relations with Russia and China in a pragmatic manner. Despite rising tensions, she saved German interests through Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and pushed Comprehensive Investment Agreement with China.

Germany was also one of the few countries in Europe to come out with its own Indo-Pacific guidelines before the EU announced its common strategy. In a changing global geopolitics, some of the German leadership role in Europe may now be taken over by France under Emmanuel Macron, if he wins elections next year.

All political parties in Germany are serious about climate change. However, the rise of Greens and their possible participation in the next government will bring the issue further up on the agenda. Although most countries in Europe are committed to green energy transition, the speed and scale of Germany’s Energiewende are exceptional. Through this transformation, Germany also wants to be a leader in future green technologies. It is phasing out nuclear power by 2022. Now Greens want coal power to be phased out by 2030. Since climate and energy will be one of the key issues during talks to form the next government, this may bring SDP and Greens together. Pro-business Free Democrats may prefer market-based instruments while Greens want massive government interventions and investments.

Due to its difficult past, Germany has relied mainly on its economic power for influence. A close Franco-German alliance within Europe and a strong transatlantic partnership have been the cornerstone of Berlin’s foreign policy. Throughout his interactions, Olaf Scholz has also identified ‘strong, sovereign Europe’ and cooperation with the US and NATO as fundamental principles of his foreign policy. Still, in a changing global order, Germany has been looking for strong new engagements, particularly with the BRICS nations.

Now relations with Russia are tense. Although China has been an attraction, Germany is also looking at India seriously. Its official ties with New Delhi are well institutionalised through strategic partnership and regular inter-governmental consultations. With more than $20 bn of bilateral trade and as a seventh-largest investor in India, Germany has been keen on the EU-India FTA. Since progress on this front has been slow, it is focussing more on strategic consultations, climate action, S&T partnerships, defence technologies, high skilled mobility as well as development projects.

(Professor Gulshan Sachdeva is Chairperson, Centre for European Studies & Coordinator Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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