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Laschet claws back ground in Germany’s coalition contest

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Campaigning in Germany’s federal election, it often seemed as if Armin Laschet could do nothing right. Even when he cast his vote on Sunday morning, the conservative candidate to succeed Angela Merkel inadvertently folded it the wrong way, exposing his choice to the world and potentially invalidating it.

Election officials decided it should be counted. But the ballot-box blunder seemed to typify a calamitous campaign for the man hoping to succeed Merkel as chancellor for the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the CSU. Lacking energy, ideas and gravitas, Laschet led the centre-right to their worst ever election result in the history of federal republic, with around 24 per cent.

And yet, the CDU/CSU was able to claw back just enough ground in the final stages of the campaign — thanks probably to Merkel’s late campaigning on Laschet’s behalf — to claim a strong chance of forming a new coalition government. The party’s last-minute revival was enough to save his job, at least for now. Party barons had been circling as they sensed his political demise. But Laschet told the traditional post-election “Elefantenrunde” or TV roundtable of lead candidates, that he would stay on as CDU chair and try to forge a coalition with the Greens and liberal Free Democrats. His biggest rival, the Bavarian leader Markus Söder, pledged his support.

CDU leader Armin Laschet mistakenly shows his vote at the polling station in Aachen © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

By eking out a close second place for the centre-right, Laschet took the shine off a remarkable victory for Olaf Scholz. His Social Democrats were on course to be the largest party with around 26 per cent of the vote and maybe 10 more seats than the CDU/CSU. Although a poor result by historic standards, the SPD raised their 2017 vote share by 5.5 percentage points. Barely four months ago they were languishing on 15-16 per cent and seemed like a spent force.

Scholz won back so-called “Merkel Social Democrat” voters from the centre-right by promising to continue her steady, unflashy leadership. Better prepared than his rivals, he also carved out a distinctive policy agenda that was attractive to traditional constituencies, such as a higher minimum wage, while responding to voters’ desires for modernisation.

Scholz has the electoral momentum. He can also point to consistent opinion poll figures showing he is voters’ preferred candidate to take over as chancellor. He has the moral authority to take the lead in the coalition negotiations. But there is no formal rule to confer such a privilege and his options have narrowed. A coalition with the Greens, who fell well short of their electoral ambitions, and the far-left would not make a majority. Laschet could still beat him to the chancellery.

For all the unpredictability of this contest, Germany is now highly likely to get its first three-way coalition of the modern era. The number of plausible coalition permutations has narrowed to two: a “Jamaica” coalition of CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP; or a “traffic light” combination of SPD, Greens and FDP — so called because of the parties’ traditional campaign colours.

Although either the CDU or SPD could claim the top job, much of the leverage in forthcoming negotiations will lie with the Greens and liberals, who have big differences, particularly on fiscal policy. The FDP would much prefer a Jamaica coalition; the Greens a traffic light. What price will they demand for a deal — and will they be willing to bring down the talks to have their way? In 2017, negotiations on a Jamaica combination fell apart in acrimony when the FDP pulled out. This time, they seem more serious about a deal. Christian Lindner, the FDP leader, even suggested on Sunday night that he and his Green counterpart Annalena Baerbock try to find an agreement directly between them.

With the duopoly of Germany’s once-mighty “people’s parties” fading, it may be the smaller parties that hold the whip hand in the difficult months ahead.


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