Seismic shifts mark German government’s first 100 days
24 Mar 2022|

The time-honoured American tradition of assessing a government’s first 100 days has found its way to Germany, where pundits are scoring the performance of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Ampelkoalition (‘traffic light coalition’), comprising the Social Democrats (SPD), the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens.

The Ampelkoalition is Germany’s first three-party government since the 1950s. To make it work, each party has had to bend on sacred principles and adopt policy positions that previously would have seemed unthinkable. And while that would have been a remarkable achievement in the best of times, no incoming government since the federal republic’s founding in 1949 has faced a more challenging start, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic and, even more, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

German politics have changed dramatically almost overnight. For a country that prefers consensual, deliberative decision-making and no-surprises, many of the recent, sudden policy shifts have been profound and will alter Germany’s domestic and foreign-policy trajectories for decades to come. But if Scholz fails to manage the short-term fallout of these changes and the inevitable tensions they will create within the coalition, his chancellorship could be the shortest-lived since the Weimar Republic.

According to a recent survey conducted by Allensbach for the left-liberal Das Progressive Zentrum, 60% of Germans believe the Ampelkoalition has a real willingness to push reforms and 51% support its long-term strategic vision. Only 20% view the new government as a continuation of former chancellor Angela Merkel’s steady-state coalitions. But 51% also anticipate an increase in social inequality, owing to proposed climate reforms that would push the share of renewable energy from 40% to 80% by the end of the decade.

While the new government can count on a reform-minded electorate sharing its strategic vision, Scholz’s leadership and communication style do not impress many Germans. Only 16% of survey respondents think he displays strong leadership and 18% approve of the government’s communication practices. Thus, for much of this initial period, there has been a stark mismatch between Scholz’s Merkelesque leadership style and popular support for reforms.

But Scholz may have begun to alter this impression with his speech to the Bundestag on 27 February. Responding to Russia’s invasion and the threat of regional instability, he announced an epochal change in German security policy. The Bundeswehr, the long neglected armed forces of this deeply pacifist country, will now receive the financing it needs to close the gap between Germany’s economic might and its strategic weight. Scholz has already set aside €100 billion ($148 billion) in a special trust fund to modernise the armed forces and to meet Germany’s commitment, under NATO, to spend 2% of GDP on defence.

With this decision, Scholz not only orchestrated one of the most significant policy shifts in Germany’s post-war history; he did so with hardly any parliamentary or public debate. Nor is this the only recent decision that has shocked his own party, the traditionally détente-minded SPD. The Scholz government has also killed off the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and joined with the United States and the rest of Europe in subjecting Russia to stringent sanctions. Germany’s decades-old policy of Wandel durch Handel (‘change through commerce’) has effectively been buried—and former West German chancellor Willy Brandt’s détente-era Ostpolitik with it.

But the SPD is not the only coalition partner that has had to accept radical departures from its traditional positions. The Greens have watched their preferred climate policies quickly fall victim to geopolitics. Rather than being shut down as planned, Germany’s remaining nuclear plants will remain in operation and on the grid for the foreseeable future. And rather than phasing out coal and decarbonising the economy as fast as possible, the Green minister for economic affairs and climate action, Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, is actively seeking to increase fossil-fuel supplies.

Meanwhile, the pro-market, fiscally hawkish Free Democrats are also having to redraw some of their red lines. They have already proved willing to debate eliminating the ‘debt brake’ (a balanced-budget rule that limits the state’s ability to borrow) and raising taxes. The party is also proposing populist measures such as consumer subsidies to manage soaring fuel prices.

If uncertain times demand novel policies and political flexibility, the Ampelkoalition has so far shown itself to be up to the challenge. But profound, radical policy changes come with risks, especially when they are adopted without much consultation and debate. Lacking clear public consent, some of them could backfire.

Unsurprisingly, the coalition—which is structured around the triad of Scholz, Habeck and Finance Minister Christian Lindner of the FDP—is already beginning to show signs of strains. The Greens and the Free Democrats fear being sidelined by policy faits accomplis and the SPD feels pushed around by its junior partners. Given this corrosive dynamic, the parties will need to revisit last November’s coalition agreement, taking stock of the consequences of the policy upheaval that has marked the government’s first months in office.

Still, after so many years of Merkel’s ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ approach to governance, most Germans understand that serious reforms, in a broad array of policy areas, can no longer be postponed. For a coalition that promised to ‘dare more reforms’, the key is not to show restraint, but rather to avoid acting at cross-purposes.

At 100 days, the government still gets credit from an electorate that welcomes reform and shares its overall strategic vision. Yet that credit could become a liability if the Ampelkoalition fails to remain united. The three opposition parties in the Bundestag have been rather timid, even dormant, so far. But that won’t last. With upcoming elections in several states, or Länder, they may soon start to pick holes in the government’s fragile triad.