Olaf Scholz walking a fine line as Germany’s politics fragment

SPD leader likes to invoke Liverpool club anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone, but his coalition is fast losing supporters

Every chance he gets, German chancellor Olaf Scholz likes to mention the song You’ll Never Walk Alone.

The Liverpool football club anthem serves as Scholzian shorthand for the chancellor’s promise of social justice and inclusive politics. It’s a curious choice, though, given its origins: the 1945 musical Carousel, in which the song is performed shortly after leading man Billy Bigelow – spoiler alert – stabs himself to death.

Unlike him, Olaf Scholz is still very much alive on the political stage. But the 65-year-old’s new year began – literally and figuratively – trapped in the song’s forecast of wind and rain, his dreams tossed and blown.

Wearing a blue dress coat, impractical brown hiking shoes and dour expression, the German leader rang in the new year inspecting flood-soaked regions of Germany with a promise that his Berlin government would help “to the best of its abilities”.


Its abilities to help are diminishing by the day. A bombshell constitutional court ruling in November pulled the financial rug from under the chancellor’s so-called “traffic light” coalition and its big investment plans. Among them are climate measures to address, among other things, Germany’s extreme rain and near-annual flooding events.

Trying to spread cheer in his televised new year’s address, Scholz recalled how many of last year’s dire predictions – freezing homes, double-digit inflation – his government had either prevented entirely, or curtailed.

But eaten bread is soon forgotten. And the new year began as the old year ended, with epic squabbles between the chancellor’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and its Green and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partners. How much of their government programme can still be financed without breaking strict, self-imposed debt rules? Without cash to paper over the ideological cracks, what does this government actually want, statist climate measures and increased social spending or fiscal belt-tightening?

Scholz promised television viewers all of the above, without explaining how it will be done. Nearly two years after his Zeitenwende (watershed) speech, Berlin’s military support for Ukraine is wobbling while Germany’s quantum leap on defence spending has stumbled. Instead of giving details, the chancellor’s new year address invoked the power of positive thinking.

“If we treat each other with respect,” he said, “we need have no fear of the future.”

Wishful thinking for Berlin’s coalition parties as they face into an electoral annus horribilis. First come the European parliamentary poll in June and parallel municipal elections in nine federal states. September brings elections in three eastern German states. In one, Saxony, Berlin’s three coalition partners are so unpopular they can expect 11 per cent support – combined.

Meanwhile, Saxony’s branch of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), classified as “extremely far-right” by the state intelligence agency, has peaked at 37 per cent – within spitting distance of an absolute majority.

Panicked calls this week to outlaw the extremist party have divided the ruling SPD. The FDP’s federal justice minister Marco Buschmann has warned that such a ban would be a “propaganda coup for the AfD”.

At the FDP’s annual “Three Kings” meeting in Stuttgart on Saturday, few expect a fiscal epiphany from Christian Lindner, the party leader and federal finance minister dealing with a multibillion hole in his balance sheet.

He is still busy spinning the grim results of a non-binding member poll this week. Just 52 per cent of FDP rank-and-file members want to stay in the Scholz-led coalition.

Lindner said the poll showed FDP members wanted to “carry responsibility for our country” but also sought “a clear liberal imprint in government policy”.

That has been lacking so far, it seems, given the party has shed half its support. As it teeters on the cut-off point for Bundestag representation on 5 per cent, the upcoming municipal and September elections bring the potential for disaster – and not just for the liberal party.

Just 43 per cent of Germans, in a poll this week, expect the government will last another two years to term. Days before Christmas, Lindner made sure to attract attention at the interval during a performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, laughing ostentatiously with his date – opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Friedrich Merz.

For older concertgoers, this public bromance revived memories of 1982 when the FDP walked out on the SPD and got in to bed with CDU leader Helmut Kohl. But things are different this time around: a CDU-FDP alliance, with just 289 seats, would be 80 short of a majority.

Unlike Bonn, the Berlin Bundestag is a crowded and complicated place. The current parliamentary term began with six camps until the walkout of Linke renegade Sahra Wagenknecht collapsed her parliamentary party. On Monday, she presents her new populist-leftist party, fragmenting Germany’s political landscape still further.

On Thursday Scholz visited another flooded region and walked on with hope in his heart, this time in wellingtons. Back in Berlin, though, the pressure is building for him to do something drastic – or walk alone.

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