The election of Willy Brandt as Chancellor in October 1969 marked a turning point in the history of the Federal Republic. For the first time, after twenty years and three CDU chancellors, the FDP and SPD formed an alliance at the federal level. It was a political project that picked up the mood for reform in the population and marked a departure into a new, more modern (West) Germany. It was not for nothing that the beginning of the coalition was linked to a “second foundation” or “reorganization” of the still young republic.
Today, over fifty years later, there is again a longing for change in large parts of society. In the Corona crisis, the state institutions were no longer up to date. For many, the country also does not seem to be adequately equipped for the challenges of climate change, digitalization and global economic competition.
Brandt 1969, Baerbock 2021
The question arises whether the long-term government parties CDU and CSU, after 16 years in power, still have the innovative strength and the vigor to tackle these problems? The “traffic light” could be the more dynamic, creative alternative to a government with Union participation. But does it also have the potential to initiate just as much political and social change as the coalition under Willy Brandt did at the time?
The road to the social-liberal coalition was paved long before it was formed. In the decade after the Second World War, Konrad Adenauer’s election campaign motto “Don’t dare to experiment!” Was still valid, but social and political conditions had changed significantly by the 1960s. A new political consciousness began to stir. This was shown in 1968 in the resistance to the emergency laws, which were supposed to allow the abolition of fundamental rights in exceptional cases.
Desire for new ways
Many citizens, groups and movements, from the trade unions, to the FDP and to the student movement, saw the proposed law as an attack on central civil and civil rights and demonstrated against the government’s plans. Quite a few associated their protest with a criticism of the encrusted conditions in the state and society. It was fermenting in parts of the population. The political landscape was not unaffected by this.
The desire for something new, for a different way of thinking and acting, had also spread in the SPD and the FDP. Both wanted to break new ground in Germany and foreign policy. They developed concepts that were later condensed into the formula “Change through rapprochement” coined by Egon Bahr. At the same time, domestic political reform ideas prevailed in the FDP, which culminated in the vision of “social liberalism” at the Freiburg party congress in 1971.
Both parties took up social trends and programmatically moved towards each other. The common Social Liberal Coalition was the logical consequence. From 1969 onwards, free and social democrats jointly implemented reforms that shape the state and society to this day. The liberalization of marriage and family law, the expansion of the welfare state and the education system are just a few examples.
Green pragmatism opens up coalition options
When thousands of schoolchildren took to the streets in 2019 under the slogan “Fridays for Future”, it was reminiscent of the student protests of the 1960s. The concern about climate change mobilized and politicized not only the youth. An ecological awareness has been spreading deep into the middle of society for a long time. The Greens are the greatest political beneficiaries of this development. They channel parts of the protest and for many voters they are the ultimate party of ecology. The fact that they do not go as far in everyday political life as many climate activists would like reveals the new green pragmatism, which not only makes the party eligible for the middle class, but also opens up numerous coalition options.
The current green dominance goes hand in hand with the loss of importance of social democracy. The Greens have ended the former supremacy of the SPD in the left-wing camp. The charisma that former SPD Chancellor Willy Brandt had today is more with Annalena Baerbock than with Olaf Scholz. The left-wing drift of the Social Democrats has so far not brought it any success. That said, quite a few people are concerned about a widening economic divide. The SPD has not yet completely lost its role as the social conscience of the republic.
Concepts for a smart, efficient state are in demand
In the corona pandemic, the state and its institutions seemed cumbersome. The digitization of the health system was obviously not at the level that would have been necessary for an early and effective fight against the pandemic. At the schools there were neither the technical nor the personnel requirements for digital teaching at a high level. The fact that Germany is lagging behind in terms of digitization was already known before the pandemic – keywords such as broadband expansion and the digital citizens’ office are sufficient here. In view of this situation, the FDP’s concepts for a smart and efficient state could in future be more in demand than ever.
The same applies to the free democrats’ keen awareness of civil and freedom rights as well as to their basic convictions in matters of economic freedom and free trade. After the pandemic, it will be important to keep a critical eye on the interference by the state in the civil liberties and in the economy and to turn back global economic nationalism. The FDP could be both guardian and driver here.
Traffic lights only work in Rhineland-Palatinate
The political, economic and social signs point to change in 2021. After 16 years as Chancellor of Angela Merkel, reforms and a new political style seem just as relevant as in 1969, when the Union had provided the Chancellor for 20 years. The Greens, SPD and FDP, each with their different strengths and weaknesses, might be able to shape a policy of the future.
However, there is still a lack of role models for a traffic light alliance to prove that it can work. While various social-liberal coalitions have ruled in several countries since the 1950s, there is currently only one “traffic light” in Rhineland-Palatinate. After all, this coalition has proven itself. In Schleswig-Holstein, the Greens and Free Democrats are also showing that they can work together.
Programmatically, the “traffic light” parties are no longer too far apart. The FDP recognizes the need for environmental and climate protection, while the Greens recently developed an undreamt-of interest in the economy. Different views in detail could be overcome. In any case, there are hardly any differences in the current programs of the FDP, Greens and SPD in social and educational policy.
The sticking point of financial policy
The potential harmony could, however, be severely disrupted. Because when it comes to financial policy, on which the weal and woe of every government ultimately depends, the “traffic light” partners have completely different views. Nowhere else do such programmatic differences exist. In their election manifestos, the Greens and the Social Democrats are calling for nothing less than an investment and spending policy that does not stop at the debt brake. In contrast, the Free Democrats stand for budget discipline and a return to balanced public finances.
After the Corona crisis, which led to record levels of government debt, such contradictions are likely to intensify further and become a heavy burden for a “traffic light” coalition. To see which conflicts the dispute over money can lead to, it is worth taking another look at the Social-Liberal Coalition. In the economic crisis of the early 1980s, the opposing views of the SPD and FDP in dealing with national debt contributed significantly to the failure of their political partnership. It remains to be seen whether a “traffic light” shows greater stamina at this point.
In the article, the author only represents his personal views and not those of the FDP parliamentary groups.