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German leaders face diminished power after election defeat

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travelled to Italy on Thursday for the Group of Seven summit, his leadership position diminished by the heavy losses he suffered in Sunday’s European Parliament elections.

The three parties in his coalition government all received fewer votes than the conservative opposition combined, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerging as the country’s second most popular party.

While President Emmanuel Macron suffered a crushing defeat to the far right in France, prompting him to announce a new National Assembly election, no such outcome is expected in Germany, where the result will have a different impact.

Let’s look at why.

Some opposition leaders said the election results showed a lack of confidence in the prime minister and his ruling coalition, so the prime minister should also announce new federal elections.

The government’s answer is clear: No.

The reason may be simply the difference between the French and German systems. President Macron can call for a new election for the French parliament, while a new election in Germany can only be held after a complicated procedure after a majority of the parliament votes no confidence in the prime minister. This makes early elections extremely rare in Germany – they have only happened three times in the 75-year history of the Federal Republic.

While the three parties in the coalition government have suffered heavy losses at the EU level, domestically they still hold a majority in the German parliament. Despite its unpopularity, the coalition government is likely to stick around and hope to turn things around before the next regular federal election in 2025.

But that doesn’t mean the consequences of the European elections won’t be felt.

The results showed deep public distaste for the governing coalition, which has proved to be an unruly and often strained partnership between the chancellor’s Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats.

Less than a quarter of Germans are satisfied with their government, the lowest level in more than a decade. infratest dimap poll last month, commissioned by a public broadcaster.

Scholz’s Social Democrats came in third in the European Parliament elections, winning nearly 14 percent of the vote. The Greens were close behind with nearly 12 percent, while the Liberal Democrats took just over 5 percent.

“The League is already in a bad situation, with constant conflict between the three parties that make up the coalition,” said Armin Steinbach, a professor at HEC Paris business school. “This leaves voters with the impression that the government is not united.”

Scholz acknowledged a poor performance and vowed that “we will be able to win the citizens’ trust in this work.”

The coalition’s next test will come in about four weeks, when the parties must work together to balance the 2025 budget, with their goal of saving at least 15 billion euros (more than $16 billion).

“If they can’t come to a solution on this, I don’t rule out the possibility that the stability of their governing coalition will break down,” said Professor Steinbach of HEC Paris. “I think we will see less conflict between the two parties in order to signal to voters: ‘We understand that you are unhappy.’ ”

Analysts and party leaders seem to agree that, at the very least, Scholz’s coalition partners need to sharpen their message and do a better job of convincing Germans that they are working in their interests.

That’s especially true when it comes to the issues that matter most to voters right now, including the economy, immigration and the war in Ukraine.

In the opposition, conservatives clearly advocate tougher immigration measures, criticize sustainable energy reforms, and promote the launch of the long-range rocket system “Taurus” to Ukraine. The far right, which is inclined towards Russia, agrees with the first points, but wants an end to German military support for Ukraine. In contrast, the message of the ruling coalition is more mixed.

Jan Philipp Albrecht, former The Green Party’s state minister, who advocates for the environment, blamed the Greens’ poor performance on the fact that the party was once an upstart but is now a staunch member of the establishment. “It’s not a particularly attractive thing to be in government trying to change realpolitik and make a lot of compromises in the process,” Mr Albrecht said.

The German chancellor’s Social Democratic Party has a “peace” platform, a policy that has divided Germany, even though the party is a major contributor to military aid to Ukraine.

Despite the many additional spending demands brought about by the war in Ukraine, the Liberal Democrats remain focused on a zero-deficit budget.

One of the most notable changes was in how young people voted, with Germany allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for the first time. The AfD rose 10 percentage points among voters under 30, while the Greens fell 18 percentage points among those voters.

With all three coalition parties in dire straits, there is no real incentive to dissolve the government and simply fight another, potentially painful election.

Any election would be particularly dangerous for the Free Democrats, the smallest party in the governing coalition, as they are so close to the minimum 5% threshold needed to enter Germany’s parliament.

While the pro-business, free-market Liberal Democrats have the biggest differences with the other two more progressive parties in government, ending the partnership could lead to the party being marginalized for years to come.

Perhaps most crucially, an election now could present a tough choice for the mainstream conservative opposition, which has vowed never to enter into a coalition with the AfD.

This proposition is tested at every German election. The next test will come in the three eastern German states, which will elect their state parliaments in September. The AfD is expected to do well, while the three coalition parties are expected to suffer another setback.

“The question is whether at the municipal and regional level we will at some point get election results where it is impossible not to work with them,” Daniela Schwarzer, a foreign policy analyst, said of the AfD. “We are not there yet, but the question is being raised.”

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