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The Guardian view on Germany’s troubled ‘traffic-light’ coalition: dealing with the midterm blues | Editorial


Midterm electoral verdicts on incumbent administrations can be unsparing. But elections this month in Germany’s Bavaria and Hesse states were notable for delivering a particularly savage one on the country’s governing “traffic-light” coalition.

In the red corner, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) recorded the party’s worst ever results in both states. The Greens’ share of the vote also fell alarmingly. The smallest party in the coalition, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), barely troubled the scorers in Bavaria and failed to meet the threshold required to be represented in the state parliament. Depressingly, the most eye-catching beneficiary of this collective humiliation was the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which did well in both races. In Hesse, running on a net-zero-sceptic and anti-immigration agenda, it won close to 20% of the vote – its best performance in a western German state.

Much of the explanation for these dismal results lies in the unwieldy and sometimes contradictory politics of the first three-party government in German history. Over the past year, Mr Scholz has struggled to keep a lid on very public infighting over climate policy, state spending and debt reduction.

The role of disrupter-in-chief has been played by the FDP’s leader, Christian Lindner. As finance minister, Mr Lindner has resolutely played to his party’s economically liberal base, championing deep budget cuts and questioning the cost of adhering to net zero targets. The Green vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, has rightly attacked the notion of letting the free market rip at a time when Germany’s economic model is under severe strain. The discord has resulted in a series of high-profile rows over issues ranging from FDP-backed tax cuts to the expense of installing heat pumps to replace household boilers.

Presiding over a fractious coalition, and facing the era-defining challenges of the climate emergency and the war in Ukraine, Mr Scholz has emphasised the need to build consensus. Accused of an overly relaxed style of leadership in one recent interview, he responded by saying: “In reality, this is a family of three parties and more than 80 million citizens, who all have an opinion on all the topics concerning how to succeed in our future.” The task, he added, was to “make sure everybody is on board”.

That is an admirable aspiration, but it may not currently be an achievable one. Across the west, geopolitical upheaval, a lack of growth and the imperatives of the green transition are forcing a reckoning with the conservative fiscal orthodoxy that Mr Lindner and his party represent. In Germany, ending an ill-advised dependency on Russian gas – while keeping Europe’s most powerful industrial economy on an even keel – has led to the short-term reopening of mothballed coalmines and a dash for gas from other sources. But there is no escaping the reality that the move to a green economy will require huge state investment and subsidies, if public support for the necessary measures is to be maintained. That is also a major path to future growth.

The alternative is a government that continues to hedge its bets and send out mixed messages, thereby ceding political terrain to the populist right. At the halfway point of his term in office, Mr Scholz needs to treat this month’s woeful election results and dire national polls as a wake-up call and exert his authority.



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