Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel Image Credit: Muhammed Nahas/Gulf News

It’s a month now since German voters cast their ballots in a federal election and only now, more than four weeks later, it is becoming clear just who will lead Europe’s largest economy for the next four years.

The parliament, or Bundestag, formally met for the first time on Tuesday, putting long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel one step closer to the door.

For the last 16 years she has led Germany, essentially too being the leader of the western nations at a time when the world has faced unprecedented peacetime challenges and geopolitical tensions.

There’s little doubt that we have seen the last of her — and she would be a certainty to head the United Nations should that appeal to her. Should any number of other prestigious positions appeal to her either, her appointment would certainly seem to be a formality.

For now, she remains as the caretaker chancellor while formal coalition talks get underway. Over the past month, political parties have been seeking potential partners, laying down lines that cannot be crossed should they enter government.

But for Merkel, who sat not at her desk as a member of the federal parliament but rather in a VIP seat in a gallery overlooking the chamber, it marks a new phase. It was the first time in 31 years that she wasn’t on the floor of the Bundestag.

One of the formalities of the first meeting of the new parliament was to elect a speak for the 736-member house, with lawmakers selecting Baerbal Bas, as speaker of the 736-member lower house.

The 53-year-old Social Democratic Party (SDP) MP succeeds Wolfgang Schaeuble, a conservative and former finance and interior minister, who was also the longest-serving member of the last parliament. He was, having first elected in 1972 to the then Bundestag of West Germany that sat in the sleepy provincial capital of Bonn.

The notion then that the Cold War might end, the Berlin Wall fall or indeed that the two Germanies created in the aftermath of the Second World War would one day be reunited was beyond wishful thinking as thousands of tanks were massed on both sides of a heavily fortified border that ran from the Baltic to the Black seas.

Merkel first took her seat just after the reunification of Germany and the former East German chemist remembered the plight of the disadvantaged then as she later opened Germany’s borders up to more than a million refugees displaced by conflict and turmoil across Iraq, Syria and beyond.

But that is all modern history — and right now, the Social Democrats are interested in politics and the formation of a new government.

It’s looking very probable indeed that SDP leader Olaf Scholz will replace Merkel as chancellor.

The leaders of the SPD, who came first in last month’s election, the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) said exploratory talks since the Sep. 26 election had been constructive, allowing them to establish a road map for more formal negotiations.

The Greens and FDP have both, however, kept open the option of turning to the conservative Christian Democrats should talks with the SPD fail. Not surprisingly, Merkel’s party say the road map lacks details but are wont to criticise it too heavily lest they have to talk to the parties about a coalition deal down the road.

The notion of a Greens, FBD (amber) and SPD (red) coalition — the so-called “traffic light” option — is supported by most Germans, opinion polls since the election say. Some Christian Democrats too have given up on the notion of forming a government and are resigned to spending the next four years of their Bundestag life on the opposition benches.

Scholtz is eager to get the formal talks wrapped up as soon as possible and wants the coalition government to focus on tax cuts for low earners and better wages for all.

That’s an agenda that poses ideological challenges to Christian Lindner, leader of the business-minded FDP which would be an outsider sandwiched between the left-of-centre Greens and SPD.

The SPD came out top in last month’s election with 25.7 per cent support just ahead of the Christian Democrats on 24.1 per cent.

The traffic-light coalition now under discussion has never been tried at the national level, and the politically plausible alternatives would be a government led by the Christian Democrats with the Greens and FDP, or a rerun of the “grand coalition” of Germany’s traditional big parties.

The preliminary talks have concluded with a pact for Germany to exit from coal-fired power stations by 2030, according to a recent joint statement. With COP26 getting underway in Glasgow next week and with the Greens fully committed to a broad range of far-reaching environmental measures, eliminating those coal plants is a red line.

Getting rid of the coal plants “requires the massive expansion of renewables and the construction of modern gas-fired power plants in order to meet the rising demand for electricity and energy over the next decade at competitive prices,” a joint statement on the deal said.

The parties also agreed on using 2 per cent of land for onshore wind power farms, to equip all suitable rooftops with solar panels and to cut time for planning and permits by at least half, the statement said.

Under Germany’s modern constitution, all governments are limited by law on meeting budgets — effectively limiting the ability to spend beyond means. For prudent German voters, it’s a red line. And, as a result of those talks, the three potential government partners have agreed that they will adhere to that debt brake.

Certainly, the formal deal should be signed before Christmas if not by the end of November. Only then will Merkel be able to kick her feet up and relax. As if.