German parties kick off exploratory coalition talks


Receive free German election updates

Germany’s leading political parties held competing rounds of exploratory coalition talks on Sunday, aimed at winning over potential partners to form the government that will take the reins from Chancellor Angela Merkel after 16 years in power.

Both the Social Democrats (SPD), who won the largest share of votes at about 25.7 per cent, and Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who came second, are trying to woo the third- and fourth-placed parties: the Greens, with 14.8 per cent of the vote, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP), with 11.5 per cent.

The SPD was less than two percentage points ahead of the CDU, at 24.1 per cent, leading both parties to claim the right to launch coalition negotiations. Either of these parties, however, would need to form an alliance with the two smaller parties.

Most Greens favour joining a coalition with the SPD, while the FDP has signalled a preference for partnering the CDU.

The SPD negotiating team, led by chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, held bilateral talks with both the FDP and the Greens and expressed an eagerness to move forward with both parties as quickly as possible.

“The SPD is now ready for three-way talks,” Lars Klingbeil, SPD secretary-general, said after a two-hour meeting with the Greens.

His counterpart for the FDP, Volker Wissing, however, said after his liberal party’s meeting with the SPD that it was “clear that there are some stumbling blocks. But what is also clear is that we are determined to form a reform government that will move our country forward.”

A majority of Germans appear to favour a “traffic light” coalition — named after the red, yellow and green colours of the parties — led by the SPD with the Greens and FDP. On Friday, a survey showed that 51 per cent of Germans favoured the “traffic light”, while only 18 per cent supported a CDU-led coalition.

Armin Laschet, CDU candidate for chancellor, who insisted on his party’s right to lead exploratory talks, took his party to its worst-ever electoral result — it dropped 8.9 percentage points compared to the 2017 election.

A survey released on Sunday suggested that his party’s popularity has fallen further since the vote, dropping three points to 21 per cent. The SPD has gained two points to reach 28 per cent.

Following the indecisive outcome of last week’s election, the Greens and FDP have turned Germany’s usual process of coalition explorations on its head. They began negotiating with each other first, and plan to continue those talks in the hope of reaching a consensus on which party they want to govern with. That could make them the kingmakers of the elections.

Speaking after talks with the SPD on Sunday, co-leader Robert Habeck said both sides were satisfied with their initial discussions.

“We found a willingness on the part of the SPD to actually start over again, to spark a dynamic that can perhaps solve problems that have been left for so long,” he said, a reference to criticisms that Merkel’s government, in which the SPD was junior coalition partner, lagged behind on many issues like climate change and digitalisation.

“Now we are primarily looking for momentum,” Habeck said.

The FDP also met with negotiators from the CDU and its Bavarian sister party on Sunday. The CDU-CSU will meet the Greens on Tuesday.

“We are very close together on the essential content-related points,” said Markus Blume, CSU general secretary. “It was a good evening, it was a good start, which makes you want more.”

Many Germany observers are worried that coalition talks could last for months, particularly given the complexity of the outcome. After Germany’s 2017 elections, negotiations dragged on for six months.

But leaders from the four main parties involved all expressed optimism over the weekend that a new coalition could be formed by late December.

“We aren’t interested in a stalemate,” the FDP’s Wissing said.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin