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Halfway through his term, Olaf Scholz has a popularity problem. The far-right is benefitting.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks at a meeting at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Sept. 25, 2023.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz speaks at a meeting at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Sept. 25, 2023. Copyright Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP
Copyright Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa via AP
By Callum Tennant
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Germany's ruling coalition, helmed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, is well on its way to enact most of its pledges yet its popularity has plummeted to the benefit of the far-right AfD party.

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Germany’s 2021 federal elections seemed to mark a turning point in the country's politics — long-time leader Angela Merkel had announced that she would not run again and the polls predicted a close race.

Devastating floods in July helped make climate change a key campaign topic with both main parties pledging action. However, after the centre-right CDU/CSU’s lead candidate was caught laughing on a visit to an affected area, the centre-left SDP party of Olaf Scholz established a lead in the polls.

The election’s results were remarkable: after 16 years in power, the ruling CDU/CSU received its worst-ever result, the Greens achieved its best-ever result, and the SDP was the largest party for the first time since 2002.

Scholz became Germany’s first new chancellor in a generation and formed a coalition made up of his SDP party, the Greens, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). But as the halfway point of his term approaches, things are looking grim for his coalition and party.

A poll by DEUTSCHLANDTREND at the end of August found that if a federal election were to be held, the SPD would gather just 16% of the vote — nearly 10 percentage points lower than when it secured power — and crucially, behind the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party.

His coalition partners would also lose support, fuelling fears that the far-right has a real chance of becoming a kingmaker.

Coalition’s ideological cracks start to show

It started off relatively well for Scholz and his coalition. Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine the German chancellor announced that the country would spend €100 billion to modernise Germany’s ageing military. The announcement was met with great fanfare, and Scholz was hailed as the man who had changed 70 years of German foreign policy overnight. His party’s ratings rose and was once again neck and neck with the CDU/CSU.

The war in Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis initially kept the coalition united but that unity is now showing some significant cracks.

Germany is used to being led by what might be seen as unusual bedfellows in other European democracies. From 2013-2021 the centre-right and centre-left parties ruled in a so-called grand coalition, the same also happened from 2005-2009. While there were occasional public disagreements, negotiations between coalition parties were usually carried out behind closed doors.

This coalition, however, has been airing its dirty laundry in public, with Scholz seen as unable to keep a tight ship.

“Above all this [infighting] stands Chancellor Scholz who has no control over his government," Reinhard, a 23-year-old legal assistant and CDU/CSU supporter from Bavaria, told Euronews.

"The ministers build up bargaining chips on each other and block each other. While the Chancellor presents a solution, the ministers continue to argue in the press. There are arguments about almost every topic; the budget, Kindergrundsicherung (basic child care allowance), heating, consistent economic policy etc."

In a midterm review of the coalition by the Bertelsmann Foundation, Prof. Dr. Robert Vehrkamp found this to be a widespread view.

“In contrast to the level of ambition and implementation status of its coalition agreement, the traffic light government is perceived by the public as a disputing coalition," he wrote.

For many Germans who are used to seeing their governing parties in lockstep, the bickering of the current coalition is adding to an increasingly pessimistic mood about the running of the country.

Others blame Germany’s previous chancellor for many of the issues facing the country, such as an economic slowdown. They argue that a lack of investment and long-term planning has made Germany uncompetitive.

According to the 2022 rankings by the Economic Research Institute ZEW, Germany now ranks alarmingly low — at the 18th place — among the world’s 21 leading industrial economies.

May bust-up and open warfare

Scholz’s coalition holds together three parties with arguably bigger ideological divides than the SDP and CDU/CSU led by Merkel had. The SDP is a centre-left progressive party, the Greens believe in certain state intervention, especially when it comes to the energy transition, yet the FDP are a free-market party that believes in economic liberalism.

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In May private disagreements between the parties burst into the public on a bill over reducing fossil fuel emissions from heaters in homes and other buildings. The FDP blocked the draft law, despite previously approving it. The party criticised the Green’s approach to the energy transition, while the Greens reacted furiously and accused the FDP of being unreliable partners.

The disagreement had been brewing for months with the two parties briefing against each other since March, despite 30-hour negotiations in the same month aimed at resolving the spat.

The arguments have continued since then, subsequently derailing some legislative goals. In August the coalition failed to agree on a law offering wider corporate tax relief worth billions of euros aimed at reviving growth in the country. The issue for Scholz is that with his coalition parties in open warfare with each other, it raises questions over whether he is in control of his government.

Yet despite this increasing public disaffection, the Bertelsmann Foundation review of the ruling coalition, which has been in office since December 2021, is rated as doing a good job overall. Researchers looked at the 453 promises the federal government made two years ago and found that almost two-thirds of the coalition's promises have either been fully implemented or are at least underway.

Could the far-right AfD capitalise on German unhappiness?

The party that has consistently benefitted from the coalition’s unpopularity is the far-right AfD. After winning just around 10% in the 2021 federal the party is now polling at around 22%.

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The growing numbers of asylum-seekers have also bolstered the AfD’s advance, which is now not only second in polls for a federal election, but leading in the eastern states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, which hold elections in 2024.

Despite this, it’s unclear whether the party has a path to power or any potential partners. All main parties are currently shunning the group, with the CDU reaffirming its refusal to work with the far-right in August.

The leader of Germany's largest opposition party Friedrich Merz reiterated in August that: “We have a clear position in the CDU. We don't work with the AfD. Not in the parliaments, not in the local councils”.

But as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics.

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