Green-Black or traffic light?

(originally published on March 26, 2021)

In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens opened the second round of exploratory talks this week to form a new government. In contrast to 2016, this time round the Greens are in the comfortable position of being able to choose between continuing a green-black alliance or starting a new traffic light coalition (“traffic light”, or Ampel, so named after the colors of the three parties involved). Minister-President Kretschmann has said that he does not yet prefer either constellation: “These are decisions of great, also strategic scope.” It is expected that sometime this weekend Kretschmann will announce with whom he will enter into formal negotiations: either with the CDU for a green-black coalition or with the SPD and FDP for a an Ampel. It is worthwhile looking at these exploratory talks, as they offer clues into how the politics of coalition talks will take shape over the course of this super election year. This is all the more so since the two options discussed in Baden-Württemberg – Greens and Conservatives or a traffic light coalition – are, according to current polls, also the most likely options to emerge from the federal elections in September. Baden-Württemberg might also provide insights about which factors come into play when the Green Party is considering its coalition options on the federal level.

These three factors have an impact on the coalition considerations of Kretschmann and the Baden-Württemberg Greens:

1. Policies and ideology. In the Baden-Württemberg campaign, the Greens have set the climate crisis as their number one priority. They also called for a reform of the state’s election law in order to increase the number of women in parliament. This was already agreed upon in the last coalition, but despite their commitment the conservatives refused to go through with it. Looking at the Ampel, some significant gaps are opening up. There is no issue that divides Liberals and Social Democrats as much as their disparate understanding of the role of the state. The Greens and the SPD see the pandemic as further proof that a strong state, capable of taking decisive action, is indispensable. The FDP, on the other hand, affirms in its election program that its guiding principle is a “lean” state. This fundamental conflict of ideology spreads out into potential financial and other disputes. Even though all three parties are committed in principle to the goals of the Paris climate agreement, they strongly disagree about its implications. “It is not the state, but rather the citizens and companies that should determine how to get there,” says the FDP’s election platform, thereby arguing for less regulation. The Greens and the SPD, in turn, are pushing for much stronger regulation, including but not limited to an effective climate law that stipulates the mandatory installation of solar systems on all new buildings. The FDP also wishes to slow down the expansion of wind power, which is as much of a hurdle as their commitment to the internal combustion engine. The SPD and the Greens are looking to organize its phase-out. On the other hand, however, Greens and Conservatives have a similarly long list of differences. Eventually, any of these differences can and will be overcome in a coalition. But acknowledging them makes it clear that neither coalition option is a natural favorite for either side. 

2. Personell. For coalition governments in general, it is of utmost importance that their leading characters get along somewhat well. The switch from being a competitor during the election campaign to becoming partner in a coalition government is a task that some politicians have shown to manage better than others. In the case of Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann is a highly popular Minister-President among voters of all parties. He also leads the state’s strongest political party (though informally only, not in an official capacity as party leader). Kretschmann and the state’s SPD leader Andreas Stoch get along well, Stoch having served as Minister of Education in the previous Green-Red coalition (2011-2016). The leader of the pro-business FDP, Hans-Ulrich Rülke, on the other hand, has dished out sharp attacks against both the Greens and Kretschmann himself in the past years. Both sides play it down, emphasizing this as being part of the game – but for someone like Kretschmann, manners do matter a lot. After the CDU’s defeat in the recent election, the conservative spitzenkandidatin Susanne Eisenmann resigned. It is the state party leader, Thomas Strobl, who is leading the CDU in the exploratory talks. He has served as Minister for Interior for the last four years and as a representative of the moderate wing of the CDU, he has proven to be a stabilizing factor for the green-black coalition. On top of this, he and Kretschmann are said to have a cordial relationship as well.

3. Tactics and stability of the coalition. The leading party in a coalition always has a strong interest in stability. Parties need to bridge their differences in order to form a coalition. The better they manage to do that, the higher the chances for a stable coalition. The most obvious factor here is an agreement on policies. Beyond that, public support for the coalition is crucial. According to the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, 43 percent of Baden-Württemberg residents are in favor of continuing the current green-black coalition, while only 28 percent would prefer a traffic light coalition. The Greens will have to take this into account. In terms of post-election tactics, the election confirmed and even deepened the constellation that the Greens will continue leading the government, with the CDU’s role to be that of the smaller junior partner. The Greens won, the CDU lost. Such a clear hierarchy between two partners would likely contribute to the stability of the relationship. However, the situation is much different when it comes to the Ampel. Here, the Greens would be governing with two smaller parties one of which sees itself as a strong winner (the FDP who gained 2.2 percentage points), and both of which are likely to fight hard for attention and scoring political points. On top of that, while managing a two-party-coalition surely is hard work as well, leading and organizing a three-party coalition is more complex and requires a particular degree of discipline and flexibility among the participating partners.

Looking at all these factors combined – policies and ideology, personell, and coalition tactics –, an Ampel between Greens, FDP, and SPD looks less likely than a continuing of the Green-Black coalition. In the end, however, it will be a close call. I haven’t talked to anyone from my former colleagues about the state of talks, but I for one would not be surprised if the Greens were in fact to enter formal coalition talks with the CDU. It would underscore their strategy of independence. Together with the expected continuation of the Ampel coalition in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, this would signal to the public that the Greens are able to govern in a variety of coalition constellations. They are a flexible and strong political force. This comes at a time when the CDU/CSU is losing public support over its poor handling of the pandemic and finds itself in the midst of an ongoing corruption scandal. Recent polls have seen the Conservatives drop and the Greens rise. The Greens draw their strength not only from these good numbers, but just as much from their strategic position: They are the only party that is part of all potential coalitions currently under discussion for after the federal election: Black-Green, traffic light, and Jamaica (CDU/CSU, Greens, and FDP).

For the course of the next months, however, the question remains: who will make the best offer to disappointed CDU/CSU supporters and Merkel voters?  

Source: pollytix Wahltrend. Black represents the CDU/CSU, green the Greens, red the SPD, blue the AfD, violet the Left and yellow the FDP.


In other news, the Greens have recently published a draft of their election manifesto. It includes a faster exit from coal, raising carbon prices and a massive increase in infrastructure spending (see summary here).

Finally, mark your calendar. Together with climate economist Claudia Kemfert (DIW) and Sabine von Mehring (Brandeis University), I will discuss Germany’s super election year and the rise of green politics on Monday, April 12 at 17.30 CET. Click here for more details and to RSVP.



Arne Jungjohann is a political scientist and member of the Green Academy at the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the German Green Party. If you would like to receive future posts like this directly in your inbox, you can let me know at mail@arnejj.org.

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