By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN (Reuters) – German politics has had an unruly start to the year, with farmer protests rattling the government, a budget crisis, the far-right riding high in the polls and a new populist party that has further splintered the political landscape.
Here are some of the challenges facing German politics this year:
The farmer protests over cuts in subsidies have received broad backing in Germany due to discontent with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-way coalition of his Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the business-minded Free Democrats (FDP), according to Hermann Binkert at the German Institute for New Social Answers (INSA).
In-fighting and poor communication, even as Berlin has had to deal with a multitude of crises, have dampened support for the ideologically diverse coalition.
Support for the coalition parties has dropped to around 30% in polls, far from the majority they obtained in the 2021 elections, making it one of the most unpopular governments in modern Germany.
That in turn has fostered a greater protest culture, whether that be the farmers blocking streets with their tractors or voters switching their support to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is now second most popular party in polls.
The economic outlook for this year does not make the government’s task any easier: growth is expected to remain well below the average of advanced economies, as Germany deals with high energy costs, strict limits on borrowing and long-term structural problems like labour shortages.
DISCONTENT IN THE COALITION
The year also kicked off with a membership vote within the FDP on whether they should stay in the coalition.
While the party elected to remain, the vote highlighted discontent among coalition party bases due to the painful compromises they are having to make.
It would not make sense for any of the parties to leave the coalition as they would all stand to lose votes and power.
But they are increasingly having to convince their own membership of that and of their commitment to their own party principles to stop the coalition from falling apart.
RISE OF POPULISM
Germany’s two traditionally largest parties, the SPD and opposition conservatives, have lost a lot of support in recent years.
That and the creation of the AfD in 2013, which other parties have so far ruled out working with, have complicated the formation of ideologically coherent coalitions.
Now others are seeking to create new populist parties, further splintering the political landscape.
Sahra Wagenknecht, an icon of Germany’s far left, launched her own party on Monday. Last week Hans-Georg Maassen, a former domestic security official popular with anti-immigration voters, also said he would launch a new party.
The EU parliamentary elections and district votes in half of Germany’s 16 states on June 9 will test the political mood.
A strong show of support for populist parties could lend them greater legitimacy.
It could also affect policy: local politicians have a significant say over green energy projects, so they could slow down the transition to a carbon neutral economy.
The biggest electoral test however in 2024 will be the elections in Germany’s eastern states of Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg in September, which the AfD is currently on track to win.
Stefan Marschall, political scientist at Duesseldorf University, said the elections could lead to minority state governments – given the fragmentation of the political landscape – and possibly even ones led by the AfD.
“That is a scenario we haven’t had yet,” he said.
Migration is expected to remain a big topic this year as mainstream politicians seek to wrestle it away from populist parties, he said.
U.S. ELECTIONS IN VIEW
German firms and politicians are nervously bracing for the presidential election in ally the United States on Nov. 5 which could have significant repercussions for Germany’s security and business interests.
U.S. politicking has already stalled military aid for Ukraine to help it fight a Russian invasion, putting a greater burden on Europe to sustain and even step up assistance.
Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is the second biggest provider of military aid to Ukraine after the United States.
German firms are also nervous of a possible increase in U.S. protectionism if former President Donald Trump were to win the election.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Andreas Rinke; editing by Matthias Williams and Ros Russell)