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The Aftermath of the German Elections: Climate as Kingmaker - Selin Kumbaracı

The federal elections that took place in Germany on September 26 were the first since 2005 in which outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel was not up for election. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), suffered the worst electoral results in its history in the wake of her departure, coming in second place with 24.1% of the vote to its former coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), which received 25.7%. To put this in context, the conservative CDU/CSU bloc had received 32.9% of the vote and the SPD 20.5% in 2017.

The Greens placed third in the elections, winning 14.8%. While this is a significant rise from the 8.9% that they had won in 2017, there was still an air of underperformance due to how in the summer of 2021, the Greens were polling in first place for a brief period, surpassing both the CDU/CSU and the SPD. In fourth place came the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), with 11.5% of the vote.

Since no single party has won a clear majority and the SPD has only gotten a slim majority over the CDU/CSU, coalition talks—likely to be quite drawn-out—will be taking place to determine which parties will form Germany’s next government. Leaders of both the CDU/CSU and SPD claim to have the mandate to take on this role. While the two major parties have entered into a coalition in the past, it is an unlikely outcome this time around. Consequently, the coalition that emerges will likely be dependent on the Greens and the FDP.

Currently, the two likely combinations are that of a “traffic light” coalition (named as such due to the colors of the relevant parties) composed of the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP or a “Jamaica” coalition (again, a name based on party colors) composed of the CDU/CSU, the Greens, and the FDP.

The two smaller parties have already begun talks among themselves prior to entering coalition negotiations with the SPD or CDU/CSU, setting up a common approach so as to bargain with the two bigger parties more effectively. As the Greens and FDP expressed on social media, “In search for a government, we are exploring common ground and bridges over dividing lines. And even finding some. Exciting times.”

Nonetheless, there exist significant divergences between the positions of the Greens and the FDP. Notable among these is their approach to climate change. With all the potential coalition members supporting climate neutrality by around 2040-2050, there has been somewhat of a lack of real debate over the broader issue of climate change. However, where the debate indeed does exist is how to actually go about reaching climate neutrality.

With the Greens and FDP emerging as the decisive actors in coalition talks, their fundamental divergences on how to approach reaching Germany’s climate targets will be a major faultline in the negotiations that will take place.

The Greens wish to enact an approach that gives a much greater role to government regulation such as stronger laws and potential bans, whereas the FDP would like a much more market-based approach to climate policy, focused on decreasing bureaucratic hurdles to enable investment by companies in zero-emissions technologies like hydrogen and wind.

One such manifestation of this approach is the way in which the FDP emphasizes carbon pricing and leaves it to market mechanisms to incentivize emissions reductions. The Greens, however, are critical of this reliance on pricing carbon emissions, calling it “deeply socially unjust.” While the two parties do agree on the need for increasing the prices of carbon emissions within the existing emissions trading system, whether this higher price will be determined by the state or the market is a key question. As one of the co-leaders of the Greens, Annalena Baerbock expressed in a speech to the German parliament, “The market won’t regulate the climate crisis because the market does not care about people.”

The FDP and the CDU/CSU share a similar leaning on this emphasis of the market, while the Greens are closer to the SDP in terms of emphasizing the importance of redistribution policies to ensure that households do not end up bearing the brunt of climate policies. However, they do diverge when it comes to Germany’s phaseout of coal—the Greens want it to take place by 2030 while the SPD has supported this deadline being later, by 2038. The FDP, on the other hand, wants to put into place incentives as opposed to regulations to encourage energy providers to move away from coal and toward renewable energies before 2038.

Another contentious topic that is likely to play an important part in discussions is that of the Greens’ car policies aimed at reducing emissions from personal transport, specifically their dual demands of a ban on vehicles with a combustion engine and the enactment of a 130 km/h speed limit.

So far, early talks between the Greens and the FDP are demonstrating some signs of compromise by the latter, especially toward speed limits, despite having been strongly opposed to both the measures proposed by the Greens.

While speed limits are an issue important to the Greens, a much more major one is that of the future of the combustion engine. It is not only the Greens that wish to phase out polluting vehicles—the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has also taken on this stance. While the Commission has proposed 2035 as the date for ending the sale of cars with a combustion engine, the Greens want an earlier date of 2030.

The FDP is against a total ban on combustion engines, saying that gasoline and diesel engines remain as a technology option and criticizing that “the EU has unfortunately fixated one-sidedly on the battery-electric drive." This involvement of the EU could offer an easy way out during coalition negotiations, though, by allowing the parties to leave Brussels to deal with the controversial matter.

All in all, whether a “traffic light” or “Jamaica” coalition come to power in the months ahead, it is exceedingly clear that more so than any single party, it will be climate and energy policy that dominates the negotiations at every step of the way—the climate has arguably become the ‘kingmaker’ in German coalition-building.


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