A year of German tripartite: war, energy crisis and inflation sink Scholz’s popularity |  International

A year of German tripartite: war, energy crisis and inflation sink Scholz’s popularity | International

They called themselves “the coalition of progress.” An unprecedented tripartite of social democrats, greens and liberals was preparing to undertake the great progressive reforms that Germany needed. The new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wanted to leave behind the years of stagnation in the grand coalition of which he himself had been a part as deputy chancellor to Angela Merkel. The euphoria at having reached an agreement between three such different partners that allowed a Social Democratic chancellor to lead the country again after 16 years of Christian Democratic rule was almost palpable.

The increase in the prices of gas, electricity and food have made a dent in the pockets of the Germans, who increasingly see the government coalition with worse eyes. The valuation in the surveys has been falling along with the growth of inflation, which, by exceeding 10%, has reached the highest level in the last 70 years. “Right now the tripartite would no longer have a majority in Parliament,” says Peter Matuschek, a researcher at the Forsa demoscopic institute. Both the Social Democrats and the Liberals have lost support and only the Greens are holding on. “They have very different ideological visions and with each new crisis there is conflict: the delivery of arms to Ukraine, nuclear energy… They reach minimum agreements and their public fights do not inspire confidence,” illustrates the expert.

That December 2021, a year ago, the exit from the pandemic was the biggest challenge. The Executive was still settling down when everything turned upside down. On February 24, Vladimir Putin’s troops entered Ukraine. And, before Scholz could demonstrate what kind of leader he was going to be, he was forced to become the war chancellor.

The start of the invasion, barely 700 kilometers from its eastern border, has forced Germany to take a radical turn in its policies. What previously seemed inconceivable suddenly became possible. Essential, even. A Scholz with an even more dour face than usual announced in the Bundestag (Parliament) a zeitenwende, a change of time, three days later, on February 27: “We are living a turning point. And that means that the world is no longer the same as before”. Germany’s role in the world had to change. The chancellor announced a special fund of 100,000 million euros for the army and compliance with the target of 2% of GDP in military spending, a NATO demand that Berlin had been ignoring for decades. Germany was facing its biggest rearmament operation since World War II.

A day earlier, Scholz had already swept away decades of restrictive arms export policy by authorizing the shipment of missiles to a war zone. One of many taboos that have fallen, one after another, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine upended the foreign and defense policy of Europe’s largest economy. Changes of this caliber were not foreseen in the coalition agreement, a 177-page contract that obviously addressed other urgency: the decarbonization of the economy, digitization, social protection. The friction between the government partners did not take long to appear. It was not going to be easy to agree on the recipes in the face of the worst energy crisis in decades.

The Germans are misunderstanding the measures with which the tripartite is fighting the energy crisis. The big announcements, such as an aid package of 200,000 million euros for citizens and companies, continue in the nebula of the abstract; they have not yet materialized in the gas bill. Communication, says Matuschek, is failing. And that affects Scholz’s assessment as a leader. After the speech of zeitenwende, his popularity rose. 60% were satisfied with his management in February. “This week we have asked again and it has fallen to 36%,” says the researcher. And the curious thing is that the opposition is not benefiting, as would be normal: “They also do not believe that a government led by Friedrich Merz [líder de los democristianos] I would do better.”

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myopic politics

“The tripartite is not yet a coalition of progress. It is not giving him time to apply the advances because he is constantly reacting to events, ”says the political scientist Ursula Münch, director of the Tutzing Academy of Political Education. The coalition “appeases the population during the crisis with measures such as the nine-euro transport ticket, but it lacks money to repair the infrastructure and modernize rail transport”, she gives as an example of what she considers “a short-sighted policy” .

However, despite the difficulties and the threat of an imminent recession, Scholz has been able to carry out social policies that he considers key for the country. The rise in the minimum wage, his main promise during the electoral campaign, materialized in June, when with his partners he approved a 25% increase in Parliament, from 9.6 euros an hour at that time to the current 12. More than six million workers have benefited from a historic rise in the lowest salaries, common in hospitality and commerce.

The reform of long-term unemployment benefits and welfare benefits, the system known as Hartz IV, was another of Scholz’s priorities. The Social Democrats wanted to erase the controversial legacy of their last chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and they succeeded this November, but at the cost of lowering expectations so that the Christian Democrats would not block the law in the Senate. The new Burgergeld (literally, citizen money) will enter into force in January with more generous aid, less bureaucracy and measures to facilitate the search for work.

Loans of the three parties

Along the way of these 12 months of government in crisis mode, the three parties have had to resign. The Greens have given up on the nuclear blackout scheduled for December 31. The decarbonisation of the German economy is on hold for the moment due to the need to find alternatives to cheap Russian gas. The Minister of Economy and Climate, the green Robert Habeck, has had to reopen already retired coal plants and visit countries to which his party has always been allergic, such as Qatar, in search of energy agreements.

For their part, the liberals have managed not to raise taxes, but their finance minister, the very orthodox Christian Lindner, has continued to sign billions of euros of new debt with which to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, first, and of the energy crisis, afterwards. Enduring the nickname of “the king of debt” given to him by the conservative opposition must not have been easy for a staunch defender of fiscal discipline.

The Russian attack on Ukraine “caught Germany on the wrong foot” internationally, says Sudha David-Wilp, director of the Berlin office of the US think tank German Marshall Fund. The “reluctant power” had to react and become a country determined to improve its defense and cut ties with Russia, on which it was extremely dependent for energy. The latter has been achieved: gas reserves are at their peak and Scholz assures that the country will get through the winter without supply problems.

The question of defense, on the other hand, makes his partners raise their eyebrows in disbelief. “The foreign minister’s words do not necessarily correspond to his actions and there are those who question whether he is a reliable long-term ally,” says the expert. The best example is that purchases of material to modernize the army have not materialized 10 months after announcing them, mired in bureaucracy and a lack of agility in decision-making. David-Wilp does not believe that Scholz can be judged as a statesman just yet, especially as Merkel’s replacement in her role as head of europe. Although the former chancellor also lived through her crisis, “the playing field is now completely different,” she says.

In his balance of the first year at the helm of Germany, Scholz sees himself as strong, himself and the tripartite, with whom he wants to present himself again in 2025. “I want this government coalition to do so well that it receives the mandate”, he said in a recent interview. After criticism of Berlin by allies such as Ukraine, Poland and the United States for its defense spending, its reluctance to send offensive weapons to Kiev or failed projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the chancellor assures that Germany will take the place it it belongs to the world. In a recent article in the magazine Foreign Policy writes: “We Germans are determined to become the guarantor of European security that our allies expect us to be.”

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