German parties agree on coalition and Sweden elects first female prime minister—twice

German party leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck (Greens), Olaf Scholz (SPD), and Christian Lindner (FDP) after concluding their coalition agreement, Berlin, November 24.
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Last Wednesday, almost two months after the September election for the German Bundestag, the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) agreed to form a “traffic light” coalition government—the term refers to the parties’ colors—to replace the coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU & CSU) and the SPD headed by Angela Merkel. Also last Wednesday, the Swedish Riksdag elected Magdalena Andersson, a Social Democrat who has served as finance minister since 2014, as prime minister—the first woman to be elected to the position. And on Monday, it elected her prime minister again!

The SPD and Greens were the big winners in the German election. The SPD won 25.7 percent of the party list vote, an increase of 5.2 percent over its share of the party list vote in 2017, and 206 seats, a gain of 53. The Greens won 14.8 percent of the party list vote, an increase of 5.9 percent, and 118 seats, a gain of 51. The FDP won 11.5 percent of the party list vote, an increase of 0.8 percent, and 92 seats, a gain of 12. Together, the three parties will hold 416 of the 736 seats in the new Bundestag. The big loser in the election was the CDU, which won 18.9 percent of the party list vote, a drop of 7.9 percent, and 152 seats, a loss of 48. The CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, won 5.2 percent of the national party list vote, a drop of 1 percent, and 45 seats, a loss of one. The right-wing, xenophobic Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 10.3 percent of the party list vote, a drop of 2.3 percent, and 83 seats, a loss of 11.  

After initial negotiations between the Greens and the FDP concluded it might be possible for them to find some middle ground on the issues that divided them—most notably, in regard to the “debt brake,” the constitutional provision that limits the budget deficit to 0.35 percent of GDP that has been temporarily waived in light of the impact of the Covid pandemic on the economy, and, more broadly, fiscal policy, especially taxation policy—the three parties began negotiating a detailed program setting out the policies a coalition government formed by the three would pursue over the next four years. Last Wednesday, the program, a 178-page document, was agreed by the party leaders—Olaf Scholz for the SPD, Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck for the Greens, and Christian Lindner for the FDP. The program must now be approved by the three parties. Since the negotiators for the SPD, Greens and FDP were in constant contact with their parties throughout the negotiation, all three are expected to formally approve the agreement. The SPD will hold a party congress for that purpose on Saturday and the FDP will do the same on Sunday. The Greens are conducting a survey of their members that began last Thursday and will conclude this weekend.

When it convenes next week, the new Bundestag will elect Scholz, currently the vice chancellor and finance minister, to succeed Merkel as chancellor. The parties agreed the new government will include seven members of the SPD, five members of the Greens, and four members of the FDP. Baerbock will serve as foreign minister and Habeck as vice chancellor and head of a new super-ministry responsible for the economy, climate protection, digital transformation, and energy transition. Lindner will serve as finance minister. The SPD has not yet announced its ministers but will do so after the party congress approves the agreement. They will head the ministries of interior, health, labor and social affairs, defense, and economic cooperation and development. In addition to the positions that will be held by Baerbock and Habeck, the Greens will head the ministries of agriculture, environment, and families. In addition to the important finance ministry, the FDP will head the ministries responsible for justice, transportation, and education and research.

The new government’s program for the next four years is comprehensive and exceptionally ambitious. It aims, among other things, to phase out coal production by 2030 rather than by 2038, dramatically increase the reliance on renewable sources of electric power from the current 45 percent to 80 percent by 2030, end gas power generation by 2040, and make Germany climate-neutral by 2045. It aims to deploy substantial new investment to rebuild the infrastructure, assist the development of electric vehicles, and support the digital transformation of the economy. And it aims to increase the minimum wage and income support for the unemployed, increase public housing and rent subsidies, reduce the barriers to citizenship, and lower the voting age.

But as important as those and all the other commitments agreed by the parties are, the most urgent and pressing issue facing the new government is, of course, Covid—specifically, the continuing surge in the rate of infection and the increasing pressure, as a result, on hospitals, some of which have already run out of space in their intensive care units. The Oxford-based Our World in Data project reports that, as of yesterday, the seven-day rolling average of new infections per 100,000 was 69.3 in Germany. In late September and early October, the seven-day rolling average was less than 10, meaning the daily rate of infection has increased seven-fold since then. As of yesterday, the seven-day rolling average of new infections per 100,000 in the EU was 58.7, compared with 10-12 in late September and early October. A sense of the magnitude of the crisis facing both the new German government and the EU as a whole is suggested by comparing those seven-day averages with the seven-day average of new infections per 100,000 in the U.S. as of yesterday—24.6. In other words, as of yesterday, the daily rate of infection in Germany was almost three times the rate in the U.S. And it was almost three times the American rate despite the fact that that, as of yesterday, 68 percent of the German population is fully vaccinated, compared with 58 percent of the U.S. population. After the parties concluded their coalition agreement, Scholz announced creation of a Covid crisis team consisting of national and regional leaders and experts that will report each day to the government and called for the creation of mobile vaccination teams, the use of pharmacies to distribute the vaccine, and mandatory vaccination of those working in care facilities. And yesterday, Merkel and Scholz met with the premiers of the 16 German states and agreed on a target of 30 million more vaccine shots by Christmas, making shots available in pharmacies, and requiring that people be vaccinated or recovered from Covid in order to go into stores. In an interview after the meeting, Scholz said he wants the Bundestag to make vaccination mandatory for all by February or March. But it’s quite likely that between now and then, Germany will have to move to a partial lockdown similar to those introduced recently in Austria, the Netherlands and other EU states with soaring rates of infection.  

Magdalena Andersson after the Swedish Riksdag elected her prime minister for the second time on Monday.Last Wednesday, while the German parties were concluding their coalition agreement, the Swedish Riksdag elected Andersson prime minister. She replaced Stefan Löfven, the Social Democrats’ leader who had served as prime minister of a Social Democrats-Greens coalition government since 2014. Löfven lost a vote of no confidence in the Riksdag in June after the Left Party, which had previously supported the government, withdrew its support after the government proposed reforming rent control to allow market-level rents in newly-built apartments. With the Left members of the Riksdag voting with the opposition Moderates, Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats, the motion of no confidence passed. But Löfven was reelected prime minister in July, despite the fact that only the 116 members of the Social Democrats and Greens—well short of a majority in the 349-seat Riksdag—voted for him while 173 members of the opposition parties voted against him. The Swedish constitution doesn’t require that a candidate for prime minister be supported by a majority of the Riksdag in order to be elected; under the system of “negative parliamentarism,” it requires only that the candidate not be rejected by a majority of the Riksdag. With the Left and the Center parties abstaining, the opposition to Löfven fell two votes short of the 175 needed to reject him. Thus he was reelected, despite having received the support of only one-third of the Riksdag.

Perhaps because that vote made it apparent that he lacked a working majority in the Riksdag, in August Löfven announced that he intended to resign as party leader and prime minister. On November 4, Andersson was elected as the new leader of the Social Democrats and, a week later, Löfven resigned as prime minister. After consulting with the parties, last Monday Andreas Norlén, the Speaker of the Riksdag, nominated Andersson for the position and scheduled the election for last Wednesday. In the vote, the Social Democrats and Greens and one independent voted for Andersson, giving her a total of 117 votes, while the Moderates, Sweden Democrats, Christian Democrats, and Liberals, with a total of 174 votes, voted against her. (The Left and Center parties abstained.) Nevertheless, because the principle of “negative parliamentarism” requires only that a candidate for prime minister not be rejected by a majority and those opposed to Andersson fell one vote short of a majority, she was elected, despite having been supported by little more than one-third of the Riksdag.

Following that vote, the Riksdag voted on the government’s proposed budget. The day before, the Social Democrats and the Greens, obviously mindful of the fact that, with only 116 of the 349 seats in the Riksdag, they were well short of a majority, agreed with the Left Party, which has 26 seats, to increase the lower limit of pensions for the unemployed as of next September in exchange for its support on the budget. However, the Center Party, which had previously indicated its 31 members would support the government’s budget, announced it couldn’t support the budget with the additional spending agreed by the government in its deal with the Left. As a result, the government’s budget was defeated. The opposition parties then brought forward an amended budget that reduced taxes on incomes and on gas, increased the salaries of the police, and reduced funding for housing subsidies, family assistance, and the protection of forests. With the Center and Liberal parties abstaining, the amended budget, supported by the Moderates, Sweden Democrats, and Christian Democrats and opposed by the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left, was approved by a vote of 154 to 143.

While Andersson said she could live with the amended budget, at least for the time being, the Greens announced they could not continue to govern with the Social Democrats since they would be obliged to administer a budget that included provisions they strongly opposed, such as the reduced tax on gas and reduced funding for forest protection. As a result, only seven hours after she had been elected, Andersson asked the Speaker to be relieved of her duties as prime minister. As she later told reporters, “There is a constitutional practice that a coalition government should resign when one party quits. I don’t want to lead a government whose legitimacy will be questioned….I am ready to be prime minister in a single-party Social Democrat government.” That evening, the Greens, Left and Center parties announced they would abstain in a new election for prime minister, which would deprive the opposition bloc—the Moderates, Sweden Democrats, Christian Democrats, and Liberals—of the one vote they would need in order to muster a majority against her. After taking soundings from the various parties, the Speaker nominated Andersson again for prime minister and scheduled the vote for Monday. And on Monday, despite the fact that only 101 members—the 100 Social Democrats and one independent—voted for her while 173 members voted against her, Andersson was elected prime minister—again.

The next Swedish election will take place on September 11, 2022. Until then, Andersson will head a Social Democrat minority government. Whether her government will be able to remain in office and enact any new legislation over the next ten months remains to be seen. That will depend on whether the government is able to win the support, on an ad hoc basis, of the three parties—the Greens, the Left, and the Center—that abstained in last Wednesday’s and Monday’s votes, since if all three support the government it would have a one-vote majority. But in considering whether it will support the government on a particular piece of legislation, each of those parties will no doubt consider whether doing so will benefit it in next September’s election. And given that those parties will, in varying degrees, be competing against each other as well as against the opposition parties in the election, one or more of them may be reluctant to support the government on any substantive piece of legislation. Nevertheless, as difficult as it may be for Andersson to muster a parliamentary majority and do anything more than preside over the status quo until the election, she does have at least one powerful weapon at her disposal that might persuade the Greens, Left and Center parties to cooperate with her government—the fact that if the government is defeated and the opposition bloc comes to power, it will bring with it, certainly in the parliamentary majority and quite possibly in the government as well, the xenophobic, right-wing Sweden Democrats, the Swedish variant of the German AfD. That should be enough to ensure that those three parties will cooperate at least to some degree with the government and that Andersson will, as a result, remain in office until next September’s election.

David R. Cameron is a professor emeritus of political science and the former director of the MacMillan Center’s Program in European Union Studies.