When Germany’s “traffic-light coalition” took office in December 2021, it promised a progressive alliance to transform the country into a green industrial superpower for the 21st century.
Under the benevolent gaze of Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor Olaf Scholz, his Green and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partners convinced each other that pro-business politics and climate protection – far from a contradiction in terms – could be Germany’s model for a second industrial revolution.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine pulled attention elsewhere for a year, forcing frenetic shifts on energy and weapons deliveries. Now, as the initial shock of war subsides, the three-way coalition is sniping in public over the challenges and compromises required to make their coalition work.
Polls this week suggest that if elections were held on Sunday, the coalition would have no parliamentary majority. The SPD and FDP are down eight and five points respectively. Indeed, the FDP is dangerously close to the five per cent hurdle, making it unclear if it even has a future in the Bundestag.
Though the Greens are steady in the polls, a new survey out this week shows them being overtaken by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
Ask leading officials in government ministries how things are going and the answers have a tone of mistrust and resentment, while many just roll their eyes.
“A three-way coalition was always going to create more conflict but the war papered over the cracks until now,” says Prof Klaus Schubert, a Münster-based political scientist. “Scholz knows he has a precarious coalition and has to give his partners more political room, particularly the FDP.”
That much was visible in the pro-business FDP-brokered compromise with the European Commission, extending the life of internal combustion engines that use synthetic e-fuels.
The stress on the ruling coalition was also clear when a recent chancellery gathering to calm tensions turned into a 30-hour marital crisis session.
A 16-page document agreed at the all-night talks promised greater investment in infrastructure and climate projection but was overshadowed by FDP leader and finance minister Christian Lindner’s vow to cancel a key Green election promise of €12 billion to tackle child poverty.
Facing rising interest payments – and anxious to appease his own voter base with a balanced budget – the liberal Lindner insisted in public that “at some point, redistribution of money to fight poverty reaches its limits”.
Given his ministry’s record tax forecast of €1 trillion this year, Green family minister Lisa Paus hit back that “child welfare is a key sociopolitical project of the entire federal government, agreed by the chancellor and the finance minister”.
Last year, in the rush to wean Germany off Russian energy, the Greens backed painful compromises on fossil fuels. Now, as they see it, the SPD chancellor consistently sides with the FDP to torpedo further Green goals.
As one Green ministry official puts it: “We shouldn’t have any illusions more about the SPD.”
A leftist Green MP goes further, describing the SPD as “climate saboteurs”.
Green economics and energy minister, Robert Habeck recently aired his grievances on national television, saying: “It can’t be that just one party in this coalition is responsible for progress.”
Key SPD officials have a different take on the coalition tensions. SPD figures say the Scholz strategy is not simply to shield the FDP but moderate between junior partners in a way that also brings the Greens back down to earth.
“The Scholz message to the Greens was that the best climate intentions are pointless if you don’t bring people along with you,” says one senior SPD official.
Another says: “Without wanting to sound arrogant, it’s clear the Greens and FDP haven’t been in power for a while and are on a learning curve in terms of getting things done.”
Some 16 months ago, when presenting a coalition agreement titled Dare More Progress, Scholz insisted the new coalition was “not interested in politics of the lowest common denominator but with the greatest effect”.
After the ill-tempered marathon talks, however, Der Spiegel magazine suggested the Berlin government is “lacking a clear narrative of where things are going” under an “opportunistic” SPD.
“Its only goal,” the magazine sniffed, “appears to be holding the fragile traffic light alliance together.”