The World from Berlin: Capital's 'Political Landscape in a Lamentable State'

It used to be that Germany's center-left Social Democrats and the environmental Green Party were a perfect fit when it came to forming governing coalitions. No longer. The failure of talks in Berlin shows that the parties have grown apart, say German commentators.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit relays the bad news. Zoom
DPA

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit relays the bad news.

Last spring, things were looking up for Germany's Green Party. Frustration with Chancellor Angela Merkel's government was growing and the country was also undergoing a radical reconsideration of nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, resulting in a spike in support for the Greens. Indeed, the party even managed to take over the governorship of the large, southern state of Baden-Württemberg -- and many thought the same would happen in the city-state of Berlin in the fall.

That was then. Now, things are looking decidedly different for the Greens after coalition talks with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) in Berlin collapsed on Wednesday. Now, instead of calling the shots in the capital, the environmental party will once again be in opposition. And the SPD will likely form a coalition with Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), an arrangement known as a "grand coalition."

The development is all the more surprising given that the SPD and the Greens have long been seen as natural partners on the center-left. And both parties have become increasingly critical of Merkel in recent months with an eye toward unseating her governing coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats in 2013 general elections.

Now, the two parties would appear to be at odds. Talks between the SPD and the Greens collapsed over plans to construct a new highway through Berlin, with the SPD having initiated the project and the Greens staunchly opposed.

The collapse of coalition talks could have consequences on the national level as well. Indeed, several Green Party politicians expressed their frustration with the SPD and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit on Wednesday. Letting coalition talks collapse, Green Party floor leader Volker Beck told the daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, "was not a clever decision in light of efforts to dissolve (Merkel's coalition) on the national level."

Deeper Meaning?

Despite problems in Berlin, the SPD and the Greens still govern together in four German states at present. They also held the reins of national power from 1998 to 2005 as the junior coalition partner in Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's SPD-led coalition. But with their poll numbers having shot up this year, the Greens have shown an interest in exploring partnerships with other parties as well. Indeed, it was only in the final days of the Berlin campaign that the Greens indicated a readiness to join the SPD in governing the city-state.

Wowereit himself was quick to deny any deeper meaning to the cessation of coalition talks. But comments from other SPD leaders on Wednesday certainly made it sound as though there is some animosity between the two parties. SPD head Sigmar Gabriel said that it was time for the Greens to fundamentally rethink their approach to infrastructure projects. He said it was an error for the Greens to think that things like highways, pipelines and power lines were no longer so important in the 21st century.

German commentators on Thursday take a closer look at the collapse of the Berlin coalition talks.

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The failure of the talks has a national dimension: The SPD and the Greens are no longer natural partners.... The Berlin incident should be a warning. In contrast to the 1990s, SPD-Green coalitions do not simply form and sustain themselves of their own accord. With more parties now vying for votes, each group is doing more to sharpen its profile and espouses political positions from which they will not be budged. Merkel's coalition with the FDP is suffering from this problem -- the FDP promised tax cuts and has not backed down from that pledge."

"The lesson? Parties that want to govern together should not make promises during the campaign that make governing with one another impossible."

Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"An SPD-Green coalition need not have failed over a city highway. But the compromise … was so lazy that it would have damaged the SPD more than the Greens if they had formed a coalition. It shows that the SPD was only serious about supposed SPD-Green 'project' if the Greens were willing to capitulate. But the Greens, compared to what they were in the 1990s ... are no longer recognizable. They have been gentrified. Their erstwhile position in the party spectrum has, in Berlin more than anywhere else, been taken over by the Pirate Party."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:

"Berlin's political landscape is in a truly lamentable state. The CDU is weak, Wowereit's SPD is hardly recognizable, and the FDP barely exists. The Greens will wallow in finger-pointing over the repeated failure of the SPD-Green coalition.... The demoralized Left Party will leave the government after 10 years of policies that did nothing but alienate them from their grassroots. Anyone still asking why people are voting for the Pirate Party now has the answer."

Left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"In the city in which 70 percent of the voters supported parties to the left of center, coalition talks between the SPD and the Greens failed before they even properly began. And here, of all places, in the city that has been celebrated worldwide for it alternative lifestyles, there will likely be a grand coalition including the center right CDU."

"Thus, it will be governed by the narcissistic Social Democrats, who under the leadership of Klaus Wowereit have been unable to gain control of the commuter train debacle in recent years … The very same leader of the party that has spent a decade building an alliance with the Left Party will now take the helm with a CDU that could not be more narrow-minded, backward-looking or unrealistic."

The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The quick failure of the SPD-Green coalition in Berlin is hardly an indication that the prospects of such a coalition at the federal level have dissolved.... The rise of the Pirate Party is not only an expression of social uncertainty; it is also the consequence of new party and coalition instabilities. The success of the Pirate Party in the Berlin election and their noteworthy national poll results further weaken the predictors -- that is, the data from which prognoses are made. There is something of a video montage afoot within politics. In the place of trends that were once there, now stand quickly changing impressions that can be laid next to each other, but provide no clear picture."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Perhaps (Wowereit) planned this from the beginning because the Greens would have been a disagreeable, uncomfortable coalition partner.... The Greens are childish when it comes to large infrastructure projects, which are just as necessary today as they were 40 years ago. Smaller is not necessarily better. The once forward-looking SPD has apparently not thrown this idea overboard."

"Wowereit has thus pulled the ripcord and saved the city from torturous, petty arguments -- because Berlin is alternative enough as is.... Perhaps he is even acting at the behest of his party's national leaders, who want to show the Greens who's boss. Angela Merkel can be pleased about this development."

"It is now up to the conservatives to show whether they will allow themselves to be led by the nose, or if they will grow closer to Wowereit (or perhaps he to them?). Either way, this change will do Berlin good."

-- Charles Hawley and Kristen Allen

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