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Olaf Scholz’s annus horribilus builds macabre momentum

Deep ideological differences on climate politics and economics have left German’s chancellor as a traffic officer managing too many coalition traffic jams

It’s not even February but the annus horribilis of German chancellor Olaf Scholz is already building macabre momentum.

After a hellish week of disastrous poll numbers, furious farmer protests and a national train strike, the Social Democrat (SPD) chancellor met his 207-strong parliamentary party on Thursday. It was a three-hour closed session where Scholz showed MPs what they’re not used to seeing from him: clarity, humour, humility.

“If only Olaf would talk outside the way he does to us,” sighed Axel Schäfer, an SPD MP and 40-year party veteran, to The Irish Times.

Just over halfway through its parliamentary term, Germany’s three-way “traffic light” coalition of SPD, Green and liberal Free Democratic (FDP) has delivered many of its coalition promises: a major welfare reform, a higher €12 minimum wage and a revolutionary €49-a-month nationwide transport ticket.

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The coalition kept the country’s lights – and heating – on during last year’s drastic energy pivot. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has, to date, prompted Berlin to gift Kyiv arms worth €7.4 billion, with another €10.5 billion promised in 2024.

But the country is facing its second year of recession and bad news follows Scholz around. When he opened a new factory near Berlin to build high-speed trains – completed two years early – news reports on Friday were dominated by farmers protesting outside against subsidy cuts.

“We are living in exciting times,” he told rail workers with a thin-lipped smile.

Attempts at humour are rare now. Deep ideological differences on climate politics and economics – spend or save out of recession? – have left Scholz as a traffic officer managing too many coalition traffic jams.

Small wonder Die Zeit weekly dubbed Germany “the blockaded republic” this week, just as two new polls indicated the government’s record to date satisfied between 21 and 27 per cent of the population.

Even without current unprecedented external challenges of climate change and war, incompatible ideologies meant Berlin’s coalition struggled from the start to act as a cohesive unit.

Analysts see a growing retreat into clientelist politics, increasing the stream of negative headlines. Some warn that this has radicalised still further public opinion to a point where government ministers are harassed in public and symbolic gallows now appear at protests.

“The mood is really catastrophic, the country is in a situation I’ve never experienced before,” said Albrecht von Lucke of the Blätter political journal. “If the government doesn’t manage to do something soon that’s big and cohesive, Scholz will lose his authority and we will experience a further democratic erosion.”

Some say that erosion is already under way. With half a dozen elections scheduled in Germany this year – local, state and European – voters have no shortage of vents for their fury.

A new leftist populist party is hoping to peel away votes from the centre and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). That decade-old party has surged to 24 per cent support – second place – at federal level. It is polling 10 points higher and leading polls in all three states choosing new parliaments in September.

With membership up 37 per cent last year, the party unveiled election-year posters this week that simply read: “AfD now”.

Its officials attended a recent meeting to discuss a “master plan for remigration” – deportation – of people to African countries, including German citizens. Rather than deny, the AfD doubled down on social media to say that deportations were “not a plan but a promise”.

As a winter of discontent looms, senior SPD MPs warn that their chancellor may end up like luckless French socialist François Hollande unless he takes on his liberal FDP finance minister, Christian Lindner.

Many in the SPD and Greens see Lindner’s determination to cut spending to meet a legal borrowing limit – 0.35 per cent of GDP – as hobbling major coalition infrastructure and climate projects.

“The FDP has lost the run of itself ideologically, as if 0.35 per cent came down from Mount Sinai as one of the 10 commandments,” said Axel Schäfer.

Amid growing public unrest and a far-right surge, the SPD man warns that small numbers can have big consequences. Like a century-old German dispute over increasing unemployment by 0.5 per cent.

“The SPD chancellor at the time didn’t get it through,” he adds. “And in the end, an ideological fight over 0.5 per cent helped tipped the Weimar Republic into disaster.”

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