Once the campaign dust has settled on every German election, either at a state or national level, the political parties, who have spent the previous months pulling apart each other's policies and casting aspersions on the credentials of each other's candidates, have to find a way to make friends.
These tortuous negotiations can take several weeks and culminate in a "coalition contract" that sets out the political agenda, including specific legislative goals, that will determine the next few years. The parties take these agreements very seriously — but they also occasionally provide a good excuse to break campaign promises: "Sorry, our partners wouldn't allow that into the deal!"
Below are the most common options, with a few caveats regarding coalition-willingness: the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is currently seen as a pariah for all the other parties, both at state and national level, while the other parties have so far only found the stomach to accommodate the socialist Left Party in some states.
'Grand' Black-Red: Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD)
Grand coalition usually means the standard alliance of Germany's two biggest, centrist parties — the two parties that most Germans consider safe options for a competent government. It's the coalition that Chancellor Angela Merkel has headed at a federal level for three of her four tenures. Almost all the German states have seen this combination in charge in their history.
The problem that the grand coalition usually represents for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), however, is that it then also struggles to present itself as a viable alternative when election campaigns come around. The old argument: "What can you offer? You've been in power all this time!" always stings.
Black-Yellow: CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP)
Germany's natural center-right coalition has governed Germany at a federal level for the bulk of its post-war history. The last time was under Merkel from 2009 to 2013, but before then, CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl led no fewer than five black-yellow cabinets from 1982 to 1998.
It's easy to see why the combination appeals to so many Germans: the CDU stands up for Germany's Christian white conservative middle classes, while the FDP brings in the young neoliberal, free-market entrepreneurs that populate the cities.
The CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, has been heading a coalition government with the FDP in Germany's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia since 2017, and has stressed the advantages of this combination.
Red-Green: SPD and Green party
This is the standard make-up for a center-left government in Germany — most successfully led by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005. But it has fallen out of favor since the charismatic duo of Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was around.
Nevertheless, they have made very happy bedfellows in the past: the SPD is traditionally supposed to catch the "old-left" supporters, the working classes, and trade unions, while the Greens are the natural party for the progressive leftist metropolitan voters. But Red-Green ditched its leftist roots in 2003 and embraced neo-liberal labor reforms ("Agenda 2010") in order to catch the business-centric center — and has forfeited some of its bases to the Left Party.
'Jamaica' (Black-Yellow-Green): CDU, FDP, and Green party
Of Germany's major leftist parties, the Greens are the most likely to appeal to Germany's conservative center — or at least the party least likely to disturb their center-right pro-business plans, since its traditional electorate does not comprise working-class voters.
It almost came about on the federal level in 2017, before the FDP surprisingly dropped out. Though it has never made up a national government, Jamaica coalitions have on the state level in the Saarland from 2009 to 2012 and currently in Schleswig-Holstein.
But on the federal level this option may well turn out to be the most likely combination if the CDU/CSU continues its slump and the Green party's high turns out to be not so long-lived.
Red-Red-Green: SPD, Left Party, and Green party
If and when a center-left option is not possible, the SPD and the Greens have on state-level been able to hold their noses and offer a berth to the socialist Left Party. Until now, that option has not been mooted at a national level, partly because of the lingering connection of the Left Party with the East German dictatorship (though time is gradually removing this from the list of concerns), and partly because of the Left's occasionally populist rhetoric about leaving NATO — which the other parties fear will scare off Germany's middle-class base. There is also some personal animosity, since former SPD chairman and then Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine surprisingly defected in 1999.
However, the combination has been in power under Left Party leadership in the eastern state of Thuringia since 2014, in the small city-state of Bremen since 2019, and in the city-state of Berlin, with its old-school leftist eastern districts, which probably have more stomach for this combo than Germany at large.
'Traffic light' (Red-Yellow-Green): SPD, FDP, and Green party
While the SPD and the Greens are usually willing to accommodate a junior partner who is unlikely to cross their main plans and yet still put them in power, the FDP generally rules this one out.
Indeed, former FDP leader Guido Westerwelle consistently refused to entertain the notion at a national level, on the grounds that their platforms were too different. Traffic light negotiations have often fallen apart. The only successful such government, however, has just been returned to power in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
'Kenya' (Red-Black-Green): SPD-CDU-Greens
As ideas go, a Kenya coalition would definitely manage to get an absolute majority.
But it's rarely an option that is called upon. So far, it has only come to pass on state levels in following elections in eastern states of Brandenburg and Saxony in 2019 in response to a rise of the far-right AfD which took a quarter of the votes. It turns out that uncooperative electorates sometimes force parties to improvise.
This article has been updated to reflect recent developments.
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