100 days of traffic light government – a bumpy (false)start?

On 07 December 2021, the party leaders of the SPD, the Greens and FDP signed their first joint coalition agreement. For the first time, a three party coalition was formed at the federal level. The signing of the agreement marked the start of a new era in federal politics – and was also announced confidently as such by all coalition partners. This change was also made apparent during the cabinet appointment: Only three members of the Merkel IV cabinet are also part of the Scholz I cabinet, none serving in their former capacity.

In political Berlin, hardly any stone has been left unturned. In the months following the signing of the coalition agreement, there has been a large-scale revising of key political figures in federal politics. This had become notably seldom. The formation of the coalition and cabinet in December 2021, caused a “trickle-down” effect, resulting in a series of positions in government, parliament and parties having to be filled anew. The long-standing government faction CDU/CSU is now exercising its new role as opposition. Whereas, the FDP and the Greens, long-standing opposition parties, are now faced with government responsibility – with a corresponding need for personnel. In the SPD, some new and mostly young faces have joined the parliamentary group. To boot, the CDU and the Greens have made changes to their party leadership. In short: a period of (self-)discovery continues to prevail within the political institutions.

This new distribution of roles means that lengthy decision-making processes have to be adapted and redeveloped. This applies to the coordination and distribution of roles of the three-party coalition in government and parliament. The “trial and error” principle prevalent in the current crisis mode is particularly striking this time around, as the parties engaged in a highly coordinated decision-making process during the coalition negotiations. This stands in stark contrast to the current decisions, some of which are made within hours, which reinforces the impression that the processes between the partners are not yet harmonised.

In view of COVID-19, the new government was aware, from the get-go, that there would be no settling-in period and that they would immediately enter crisis mode. The status quo has further intensified with the start of the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine. In the political arena, between discussions about arms deliveries and the right measures to further combat the COVID-19 pandemic, hardly any time remains for substantive work on the goals set out in the coalition agreement. At least it is challenging to ensure that achievements are being recognised by the public.

Ultimately, the latest developments showed that any coalition agreement can only be a snapshot. For politics and business it is an important frame of reference to prepare for the upcoming legislative period, but it is (partly) obsolete from reality. Nevertheless, the planned projects will be conducted simultaneously. The agreement is thus not nullified, but rather amended.

This agglomeration of new political actors, new political decision-making processes that are still inventing themselves and major political issues solidifies the bystanders impression that the coalition has had a bumpy, if not a false, start to the crisis.

What is the future of the coalition?

The coming weeks will be decisive. In early May, state elections are due in two CDU-led states. If the CDU can hold on to both states and form governments, they will be left with the possibility of assuming a politically powerful opposition role via the Bundesrat. Simultaneously, the impression that the traffic light coalition in Berlin remains the exception and that the new CDU party leadership has begun to successfully reposition the party would be consolidated. If the SPD wins North Rhine-Westphalia and receives a strong result in Schleswig-Holstein, public perception would lean towards the belief that the course of Chancellor Scholz and the coalition is supported by the voters.

Moreover, it remains to be seen to what extent Berlin’s coalition leaders can improve their craftsmanship. If the upcoming major policy debates within the coalition can be structured prior to going public, then the impression that the three parties have found a way to collaborate and trust each other could be cemented. Since this has already been accomplished during the coalition negotiations – admittedly for a significantly shorter period than four years – a tangible chance presents itself for this.

Finally, it will also be deciding how “quickly” the currently prevailing crises disappear from the public focus or are no longer pursued so adamantly. Should this occur, in spite of the actors‘ limited influence over this, the coalition could still become the self-proclaimed transformation coalition. If not, the bumpy start could continue and the traffic light as a self-confident and self-proclaimed progress coalition could once again become a discontinued model.

Robin Arens

Senior Associate, Bernstein Group