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Opinion: German coalition government exceeds its reputation

December 7, 2022

A coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats has been governing Germany since December 8, 2021. Despite all the criticism this first year has been nothing to sneeze at, says Marcel Fürstenau.

Christian Lindner, Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck
Christian Lindner, Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbock and Robert HabeckImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

All theory is gray, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once quipped, meaning that theory does not always translate into reality. Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his center-left coalition government have in a most dramatic manner confirmed the wisdom of Germany's most famous poet.

The coalition did not have time to adjust, nor was there a period of grace. The reality is that the colorful trio of Social Democrats (red is their party color), environmentalist Greens, and neoliberal Free Democrats (yellow), referred to colloquially in Germany as the "traffic light coalition," has been governing in a virtual state of emergency since the 79th day of its term in office.

A turning point for all

On that day, February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. In parliament, Olaf Scholz, Germany's first Social Democratic head of government after 16 years under Christian Democrat Angela Merkel, soon after announced a "Zeitenwende," or turning point.

It's a matter-of-fact, accurate, and generally understandable term for what Russian President Vladimir Putin provoked with his war against his neighbor — and applies to Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and the rest of the world.

According to the coalition agreement, the government in the German capital Berlin regards itself as an "alliance for freedom, justice, and sustainability." Living up to that declaration in times of war and the coronavirus pandemic is a Herculean task the Scholz government has so far mastered, despite understandable criticism when it comes to details.

When necessary, for instance in the coalition dispute concerning extending the life of nuclear power plants that are scheduled to be decommissioned, the chancellor put his foot down and showed leadership.

 Marcel Fürstenau
DW's Marcel Fürstenau Image: DW

Germany has gained stature in terms of foreign and security policy. No matter how people might feel about the huge increase in military spending announced by Scholz, within the framework of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) it signals reliability and solidarity.

This signal is largely thanks to the Green Party — a party with pacifist roots, which when it was founded in 1980 called for the dissolution of NATO.

Scholz deserves credit for largely resisting what at times were brash demands for more and more weapons for Ukraine. At the same time no one can say that under his leadership, Germany hasn't budged where weapons are concerned.

As long as the chancellor and the government coordinate internationally, they are headed in the right direction. When it comes to war and peace, his toned-down manner of speech stands out pleasantly from the rhetorical drumbeat of those for whom diplomacy has apparently become a foreign word.

Indispensable aid programs

The coalition has a lot to show for, despite and because of the war — above all, the mammoth aid programs to cushion the consequences of the massive rise in energy costs and inflation. The relief packages that have benefited both the population and the economy now total well over €200 billion ($210 billion).

Finance Minister Christian Lindner had to bite the bullet to make it happen. When it comes to the federal budget, the Free Democratic politician formally complies with the constitutional debt brake that limits Germany's borrowing, but loans designated as special funds are what they are — and that is debt. They restrict any financial leeway in the coming years. All the same, taking pragmatic action is the right way to go, especially in times of war and crisis.

The government can be relied on when it matters

At this time nothing would be worse than losing sight of the big picture. Of course, in theory, the three parties that have governed Germany for the past year are often worlds apart.

chart showing that not everyone is satisfied with the performance of the German government
Not everyone is satisfied with the performance of the government

But in practice, and in times of need, they are on the same page when it matters, and concerning important issues. The odd dispute carried out publicly does not change that.

Let's hope the Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats don't get rattled by poor poll results. The most recent Deutschlandtrend survey rates their popularity at no more than 41%, with only 30% of the people polled satisfied with the government's work. However, the figures could improve again very quickly.

Taking the public mood seriously, pondering it, and making well-considered decisions is also a sign of good governance. From a national and an international perspective, Olaf Scholz and his coalition partners are still the best choice one year after taking office, despite some of their individual attempts at making a mark at the expense of others.

Some countries would like to be more German

From the outside, the view of Germany is more positive anyway.

The political turmoil of the kind currently experienced in the United Kingdom, Italy, or Sweden is hardly imaginable in Berlin. Even on the other side of the Atlantic, many people in the US or Brazil would be happy if their political conditions were a little more German. That is something people in this country, too, should bear in mind when judging the performance of their own government.

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.