State of the Left

Germany’s coalition government under Covid-19

29 April 2020

Germany’s coalition government is winning high approval for its handling of the crisis; but the SPD is failing to benefit

Penny Bochum
Editorial credit: Sybille Reuter / Shutterstock.com

In early March, polls in Germany showed the conservative CDU/CSU Union hitting a record low of 26%approval, indicating that a new left-of-centre coalition with the Green Party at its head seemed to be the most likely outcome for the 2021 federal election.  Yet since the Covid-19 crisis began, the coalition has seen a stunning reversal in its fortunes. 

The CDU/CSU/SPD coalition government has received strong support for its handling of the crisis. Even if public opinion is becoming increasingly divided as the restrictions on daily life are slowly being lifted, with a backlash against the lockdown continuing from some quarters, the government’s measures still command majority support

The mood between the coalition partners has largely been one of unity, so far, and  the 16 federal states have cooperated on national rules.  However, there is an increasingly vociferous debate about how fast and how far restrictions should be lifted. Chancellor Merkel even coined a new word ‘Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien’, to describe such debate, which loosely translates as ‘orgy of discussion on the (re)opening of daily life’

Merkel has re-emerged as an unparalleled crisis leader, regularly appearing in press conferences flanked by other coalition politicians and government scientists from the Robert Koch Institute. Her consensus-driven decision-making, as well as her clear and direct explanations to the public, has won praise from all sides.

Recent polls have seen support for the coalition parties surge to 39%, as much as the Greens, SPD and Left party together, and the approval ratings of all the major politicians steering the country through the crisis  are high.  Yet the SPD has failed to profit from public approval, despite some of its politicians emerging as key figures, and even very popular managers of the crisis.

A safe place to be

Most politicians in Germany have remained low-key about the country’s apparent success in handling the virus, with Angela Merkel  regularly warning that we are only at the beginning of the pandemic.  Yet so far, people in Germany can feel confident that, as one survey found, they are in the second safest country in the world to be in right now (after New Zealand).

In January, while the British government was dismissing  the threat to the UK as low, the government in Berlin started to prepare for the virus to hit Germany.  And that preparation shows.

Extensive testing (over 120,000 daily tests, and an increase to four and a half million a week planned) has meant that infected people can be isolated and treated early, and contact tracing can take place rapidly.   Thanks not only to a well-funded health service, but also an expansion of intensive care beds from 28,000 to 40,000 at the beginning of the crisis, thousands of intensive care beds remain open.  Germany has even taken in patients from neighbouring countries.  The mortality rate from the virus is still relatively low in Germany, although it is rising, and stands at 3.7%this week. 

Germany’s bazooka

There’s no denying that the economic outlook in Germany remains bleak.  The government’s  Council of Expertsmodelled three scenarios showing the economy shrinking by between 2.8% and 5.4% with Munich’s ifo Institutepredicting a slump of between 7.2 to 20.6 %.  

Yet many people in Germany  are being cushioned from some of the worst and most immediate effects of the economic shutdown, and two SPD politicians from the coalition government, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Employment Minister Hubertus Heil, have played key roles in implementing measures to mitigate the effects on companies and employees. 

Scholz took immediate action in March, unpacking his 1.2 trillion bazooka of financial aid, which included grants to small businesses and freelancers, loans to companies, and payments to workers laid off during the crisis.  He added a further 10 billion euros last week, partly to finance an increase in Kurzarbeit or ‘short work’ (where the state pays a percentage of a worker’s salary if they are temporarily laid off due to lack of demand) from between 60- 67% to as much as 87%.

As well as overseeing the increase in Kurzarbeit payment, Heil is planning a raft of measures including financial help for parents and people who have to self-quarantine,  a draft law to enshrine the right to work from home and, with CDU Health Minster Jens Spahn, planning to give care workers a bonus of up to 1,500 euros.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the crisis, Scholz confirmed  that the SPD policy of a basic pension (an additional  payment for pensioners whose pensions do not cover the basic costs of living) will not be delayed by  the onset of the coronavirus, but will be introduced as planned on 1st January 2021. Last week, Heil announced that from July, there will also be an increase in the state pension for 21 million pensioners. 

The SPD fails to advance

Despite the key role the SPD is playing in the management of the crisis, the party is still languishing at around 16% in the polls.  This is not only the result of the age-old problem of a junior coalition partner failing to win credit for the measures it implements  (one reason why many SPD members didn’t want to go into coalition after the 2017 election).  This situation also reflects the party’s deep divisions over questions of direction and  identity, which finished off the leadership of former leader Andrea Nahles.

In December, Olaf Scholz was defeated in the party’s leadership election by two little-known left-wingers, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken.  The new leaders have a low profile and low approval ratings, compared to Scholz, whose approval rating in early April was, at  63%, only one point lower than Merkel’s.  

Scholz’s defeat was seen as criticism of the centrist course he has pursued, as many party members regard him as too right wing.  One reason for this has been his adherence to the CDU policy of the balanced budget – known as ‚the Black Zero‘ – a policy which Scholz can now argue has been vindicated.  As the Zeit wrote, Scholz’s underlying message now in the crisis is,  “Because I, as finance minister, have held the money together in recent years, there is now enough.… So stay calm: We can act on full power because I have filled the coffers.” 

Scholz’s rejection  by the membership was  a surprise to many outside the party.  A Frankfurter Allgemeine article commented that while even Scholz’s leadership opponents  admitted he could win an election for the party, the party rejected him in December nevertheless, stating “The party cheered, outsiders watched, stunned……the party constantly struggles with itself, fouls itself at every opportunity, and dismantles its own leadership with passion. The party appears halfhearted, indecisive, too little aware of power, and also too ideological. The members think that is just great.”

The Greens and AfD lose

Support for both the Green Party and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have fallen by about 5% during the crisis – the Greens to 18% and the AfD to 9%.   This is partly as a result of the new priorities people have discovered in the times of the corona virus, for example Forsa found that only 13% are worried about foreigners and refugees, and only 9% consider the climate and environmental protection to be the most important challenge of the day.

The AfD in particular has been wrong-footed by the crisis, and by the success of the coalition government in dealing with it. The party simply offers no alternative.  The inability of its Bavarian leader  on a TV panel interview to  think of a single policy the AfD had  to support the economy through the crisis was widely reported.  When the party finally did come up with a five point plan, most of it had already been implemented by the coalition government.  In addition, AfD politicians have flouted  the social distancing regulations which have won 93% approval from the citizenry.  As a  Tagesschau report noted, “The constant narrative of the AfD, that the government is acting incorrectly, apparently does not go down well in corona times.”

In the longer term, the political landscape could change once again, as the immediate threat recedes and the implications of the shutdown filter through.  The coalition may see a drop in its polling figures, and  unity between the coalition partners and the states may well erode. When it comes to it, Germany’s handling of the crisis may over the long term not compare as favourably with other countries,  and increased insecurity in the wake of the inevitable period of recession could foster the conditions for a further rise in the AfD vote. Those building on their claims to be Chancellor candidates next year – including the CSU’s Markus Söder, the CDU’s Armin Laschet and possibly SPD’s Olaf Scholz – may find the new post-corona world to be very different.

‘We are the People: The Rise of the AfD in Germany’ by Penny Bochum is available on amazon or via Haus Publishing.