German voters are a cautious lot and, on Sunday, they voted for political change – but with a half-engaged handbrake.
With chancellor Angela Merkel no longer on the ballot, Germans shifted their allegiance in record numbers away from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the person and party they felt most likely to continue her policies: Olaf Scholz and his Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Scholz and the SPD finished first thanks to a sober, centrist candidate and a snappy leftist campaign with clear messaging. It revived the promise of social justice – higher wages for low-earners, stable pensions and more affordable housing – and married it with a promise of a jobs-friendly green transformation of Europe’s largest economy.
To secure a parliamentary majority in a three-way alliance, though, Scholz will need to balance contradictory political ambitions of would-be partners: a big state Green transformation financed by tax hikes for top earners, and a liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) that wants a more modest climate shift financed by trickle-down economics and a swift post-pandemic return to balanced budgets.
On Monday morning, sleep-deprived Social Democrats hurried into their party headquarters, the Willy Brandt Haus, anxious to convert Sunday’s election victory into a new coalition.
Before reaching out to potential partners, though, the party knows it has to clarify a tricky internal dilemma. Olaf Scholz, their election hero and chancellor presumptive, is the same man members rejected as leader in 2019.
On Monday the leftist leadership duo who beat him back then – Saskia Esken and Olaf Walter-Borjans – insisted Scholz had their full support. Their task in the weeks and months ahead will be to hold in check rival leftist and centrist camps now there are spoils of power to carve up.
Four kilometres west, the knives were out on Monday morning at the Konrad Adenauer Haus to find someone, anyone, responsible for the CDU’s election debacle and runner-up result.
Given support for the CDU and its Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) ally has halved in just eight years, CDU leader Armin Laschet, the man who led the party into its worst-ever result on Sunday evening , insisted there was enough blame to go around.
Laschet insisted there was still hope of a fifth CDU term. He held brief talks on Sunday evening with the FDP and hoped to talk to the Greens on Monday. His hope: to offer a sweeter deal than the SPD and pull them over to a so-called "Jamaica" – black, yellow, green – coalition.
Last week senior CDU figures recalled how, in the 1960s and 1970s, the SPD finished second but its leaders Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt ended up chancellor.
At their post-mortem meeting, some long-faced CDU figures blamed Merkel for giving up the party chair in 2018 but lingering around as chancellor, leaving Laschet little room to manoeuvre in the campaign.
Others point the finger at Wolfgang Schäuble, the outgoing Bundestag president and CDU grey eminence. He pushed through the gaffe-prone Laschet largely to thwart the political ambitions of Markus Söder, the more populist head of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU.
Söder and his allies attacked Laschet on Monday for “stepping on every banana skin available”: from laughing during a visit to a flood-wrecked town to posting his ballot on Sunday with his vote visible to photographers.
But those CSU attacks from Munich were blunted somewhat given the Bavarian party also had its worst election since 1949.
When all is said and done, most CDU/CSU figures accept that, nine months after Laschet became leader and four months after he was chosen as joint candidate, their centre-right alliance’s will to retain power was not matched by a clear political offering.
The Green Party frontbench met on Monday with mixed feelings. Its record result of 14.8 per cent was half its support in the spring. In a year of catastrophic floods and Fridays for Future marches, that was far from the vote in confidence it predicted for its climate protection agenda.
Senior Green figures have spoken out in favour of exploring both coalition options with the FDP: a “traffic light” with an SPD lead and a CDU-lead “Jamaica” option.
Sensing political opportunity, FDP leader Christian Lindner has urged the Greens to meet him first and carve out a joint strategy for their two would-be suitors.
Sunday's poll highlighted ongoing east-west political divisions in Germany. Despite a national struggle and just 10 per cent support nationwide, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland took one fifth of the vote in eastern regions , rising to 24.6 per cent in Saxony.
All German political parties insisted on Monday that no one wants a protracted period of uncertainty. But after German electors chose change on Sunday, it remains to be seen how much change the elected dare give them.