Olaf Scholz’s shaky coalition under siege as gap between politics and reality widens

German chancellor’s leadership torn between inner voices of Pollyanna and Cassandra as blind optimism gives way to growing pessimism

German chancellor Olaf Scholz once promised his Social Democratic Party (SPD) that if they asked for leadership, then leadership was what they would get.

Just past the midway point of his first four-year term, however,he admitted this week that his leadership is torn between two inner voices: Cassandra and Pollyanna.

In Germany’s gloomy political debate culture, where catastrophists and pessimists are viewed as far-sighted and all’s-for-the-best optimists as hopelessly naive, Scholz said he tried to practise – and explain – politics by avoiding the Cassandra trap.

“At the same time,” he told an audience in Potsdam, “I pay panicked heed that it doesn’t sound like a drug-fuelled optimism, where people ask: ‘What is he talking about?’”


German voters are feeling more Cassandra than Pollyanna towards their chancellor. After weeks of farmer and transport strikes, just one in five began the year happy with his work, while only 17 per cent think his untested alliance – of the SPD, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Greens – is doing a good job.

But Germany’s so-called “traffic light” coalition hasn’t had it easy, either. Just nine weeks after signing an ambitious programme for government – to decarbonise the German economy and make it a green industrial giant – Russia invaded Ukraine.

Berlin’s best-laid plans were binned for a dicey, and expensive, energy pivot as well as huge defence spending on military donations to Kyiv and on its own armed forces.

While no one froze last winter, and Germany is now Kyiv’s largest EU arms supplier, such achievements have been overtaken by Israel-Gaza and fears of a wider Middle East war.

Similarly, delivery of key welfare promises has been eclipsed by anger at multiple U-turns on legislation which even ministers admit “wasn’t thought through”.

Meanwhile, fears over Germany’s unresolved migration crisis (350,000 asylum applications last year alone) has contributed to record high support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

In a lively Bundestag debate this week, Scholz defended his coalition’s record and accused the “lily-livered” opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of refusing a cross-party immigration pact to keep alive a hot-button issue – benefiting only the far right.

CDU leader Friedrich Merz disagreed, suggesting that “even a mediocre government” could have halted the AfD’s doubling of support to 20 per cent in polls. Given both parties shared power in Berlin for most of the AfD’s decade-long rise, such blame games don’t impress Scholz coalition partners. One senior FDP official tried radical honesty this week. Suggesting both society and politics were “overwhelmed” by unprecedented crises, he added: “I just ask that we match our expectations of politics to this reality.”

Highlighting the gap between politics and reality has, for two years, been the speciality of the FDP’s hawkish defence spokeswoman Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann. She regularly attacks the chancellor over the – in her eyes – snail-like pace of German arms deliveries to Ukraine. Last weekend, amid another standoff over whether to deliver Taurus cruise missiles, she described Scholz as “not my chancellor”. It was a frank vote of no confidence from the most popular politician in the supremely unpopular FDP. At just 4 per cent in polls, as a busy year begins of European and state elections, appeasing its pro-business voters may now be the FDP’s political priority in Berlin – not coherent coalition policy.

With an economy in recession, FDP leader and finance minister Christian Lindner pushed through a federal budget bound by controversial debt rules, a party election promise. Meanwhile, FDP opposition forced Scholz to withhold German support on Friday in Brussels for a draft EU law on supply chain management designed to curtail child labour and environmentally unfriendly practices.

With such solo runs, German political analysts are making no predictions over the coalition’s future in Berlin.

“To date, given the foreign policy upheavals and political limits at home, the coalition isn’t doing such a bad job,” said Prof Klaus Schubert, political scientist at the University of Münster. “They’re just appalling at selling themselves, making themselves everyone’s favourite whipping boy. And it’s not at all clear if they will get their act together.”

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Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin