German election: A guide to possible coalitions for Berlin's new government

Whether Angela Merkel and the CDU, or Martin Schulz and the SPD no party is likely to emerge with an absolute majority. Here's an overview of who might go with whom for the next government.

Once the campaign dust has settled on every German election, either at state or national level, the political parties, who have spent the previous months pulling apart each other's policies and casting aspersions on the credentials of each other's candidates, have to find a way to make friends.

These tortuous negotiations can take several weeks and culminate in a "coalition contract" that sets out the political agenda, including specific legislative goals, that will determine the next few years.


Colorful shorthand for German coalitions

Coalitions are common under Germany's proportional representation system. To describe complex ballot outcomes, political pundits use colorful symbolism, often alluding to the flags of other nations. Coalition short-hand includes 'Jamaica,' 'Kenya,' and 'traffic light' coalitions.


'Jamaica' option - black, yellow and green

The three-way deal between the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, whose color is yellow will not be happening at national level after the FDP called off talks. The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein currently has a "Jamaica" government, as CDU premier Daniel Günther governs with the FDP and the Greens.


Black-red coalition

Conservative black combined with transformative red is the color code when the Christian Democrats govern in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Yellow on these billboards alludes to Germany's tricolor flag of black, red and gold. Black tops the flag, signifying Germany's responsibility for the Holocaust.


'Pizza Connection' in Bonn, before parliament moved to Berlin

When Bonn was still Germany's capital, individual conservatives and Greens met from 1995 in its suburban Italian Sassella restaurant. Since then, the 'Pizza Connection' has become code for speculation over further links. At regional level, in Hesse's Wiesbaden assembly, Merkel's CDU and Greens have governed together since 2014. Baden-Württemburg's Greens-CDU coalition has governed since 2016.


Another untried combination: Black, red, green, symbolized by Kenya's flag

So far, a 'Kenyan' coalition has only emerged once at regional state level - last year in Saxony-Anhalt, when the SPD's vote collapsed, and the AfD took a quarter of the votes. Premier Reiner Haseloff of Merkel's conservatives forged a coalition comprising his conservative CDU, the battered SPD and the region's Greens.


'Traffic light' coalition

The market-oriented liberal FDP, whose color is yellow, has in the past generally ruled out federal coalitions sandwiched between the Social Democrats, whose color is red, and the Greens. A current example is Rhineland Palatinate's three-way regional state coalition based in Mainz and headed by Social Democrat Malu Dreyer.


Center-left combinations in three eastern states

Red-red-green coalitions exist in two German regions: since last September in Berlin city state and since 2014 in Thuringia. It's Erfurt-based government is headed by Left party premier Bodo Ramelow, seen signing (third from left). Berlin's three-way mix is headed by Social Democrat Michael Müller. Brandenburg has a two-way coalition, comprising the Social Democrats and the Left party.

The parties take these agreements very seriously - but they also occasionally provide a good excuse to break campaign promises: "Sorry, our partners wouldn't allow that into the deal!"

Below are the most common options, with a few caveats regarding coalition-willingness: the right-wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is currently seen as a pariah for all the other parties, both at state and national level, while the other parties have so far only found the stomach to accommodate the socialist Left party in some states.

Read more: What do the terms "left" and "right" mean in Germany's political spectrum?

"Grand" - Black-Red: Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Grand coalition usually means the standard alliance of Germany's two biggest, centrist parties - the two parties that most Germans consider safe options for a competent government. It's the coalition that Chancellor Angela Merkel currently presides over at a federal level, and the one she has run in two of her three tenures. Almost all the German states have seen this combination in charge in their history, though at the moment, only Saarland currently has it.

The problem that the grand coalition usually represents for the Social Democratic Party (SPD), however, is that it is both forced to accept the CDU's authority in the two key government offices - the chancellery and the Finance Ministry - but then also struggles to present itself as a viable alternative when election campaigns come around. The old argument: "What can you offer? You've been in power all this time!" always stings.

Read more: CDU, SPD butt heads and shake hands in all-night coalition meeting

Große Koalition Vertragsunterzeichnung Merkel und Gabriel

Germany is currently under the leadership of Merkel's grand coalition with the SPD

Black-Yellow: CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP)

Germany's natural center-right coalition has governed Germany at a federal level for the bulk of its post-war history. The last time was under Merkel from 2009 to 2013, but before then, CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl led no fewer than five black-yellow cabinets from 1982 to 1998.

It's easy to see why the combination appeals to so many Germans: the CDU stands up for Germany's Christian white conservative middle classes, while the FDP brings in the young business-friendly, free market entrepreneurs that populate the cities. But the failures of the FDP in recent years has taken this card off the table for now (the FDP is currently polling at between 6 and 7 percent nationally), and this particular combination is not in charge of any German state at the moment.

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Red-Green: SPD and Green party

This is the standard make-up for a center-left government in Germany - most successfully led by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005. But it has fallen out of favor since the charismatic duo of Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer were around, and there is currently little likelihood it will take over after the parliamentary election on September 24: the SPD is struggling to poll over 30 percent, while the Greens are languishing at around 8 percent.

Nevertheless, they have made very happy bedfellows in the past: the SPD is traditionally supposed to catch the "old-left" supporters, the working classes and trade unions, while the Greens are the natural party for the progressive leftist metropolitan voters. But that formula hasn't worked in the last few years, not least because Red-Green ditched its leftist roots in 2003 and embraced neo-liberal labor reforms ("Agenda 2010") in order to catch the business-centric center - and has forfeited some of its base to the Left party.

Deutschland Geschichte Kapitel 5 1989 – 1999 Rot-grün Koaltionsvertrag

Former Chancellor Schröder and Foreign Minister Fischer led a Red-Green coalition from 1998-2005

Red-Red-Green: SPD, Left party, and Green party

Since a center-left option is not currently likely, the SPD and the Green might just be able to hold their noses and offer a berth to the socialist Left party. Until now, that option has not been mooted at a national level, partly because of the lingering connection of the Left party with the East German dictatorship (though time is gradually removing this from the list of concerns), and partly because of the Left's occasionally populist rhetoric about leaving NATO - which the other parties fear will scare of Germany's middle class base.

However, Red-Red-Green's electoral success in the German capital last September (and in Thuringia in 2014 under the leadership of the Left party) has at least turned it into a possibility at a national level. But liberal Berlin, with its old-school leftist eastern districts, probably has more stomach for this combo than Germany at large. Nevertheless, given the polling weakness of the Greens, this is likely to be Schulz's only option, if he wants to be chancellor.

Read more: Is the SPD opening the door to a cooperation with the Left?

"Jamaica" (Black-Yellow-Green): CDU, FDP, and Green party

Of Germany's major leftist parties, the Greens are the most likely to appeal to Germany's conservative center - or at least the party least likely to disturb their center-right pro-business plans, since its traditional electorate does not comprise working class voters.

Jamaika Fahne vor Reichstag

The Jamaica coalition rarely comes with a Caribbean spirit

Though it has never made up a national government, Jamaica coalitions have governed one state - Saarland from 2009 to 2012 - and a number of local district councils. It is also currently being mooted as a possibility in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, following the CDU's success there in the May 7 election. However, if the Green leaders make any such deal, they'd have to persuade their party members, who are generally of a more leftist bent, and would prefer a so-called "traffic light" coalition.

"Traffic light" (Red-Yellow-Green): SPD, FDP, and Green party

In this coalition, the yellow light is likely to feel out of place: the free-market-friendly FDP can legitimately fear being overwhelmed as it is wedged between its leftist partners of the SPD and the Greens. While the SPD and the Greens are usually willing to accommodate a junior partner who is unlikely to cross their main plans and yet still put them in power, the FDP generally rules this one out.

Ampelkoalition NRW gescheitert 2010

Rheinland-Palatinate has been governed by a 'traffic light' coalition since last year

Indeed, former FDP leader Guido Westerwelle consistently refused to entertain the notion at a national level, on the grounds that their platforms were too different, while Wolfgang Kubicki, party leader in Schleswig-Holstein, has already virtually done so in his state following May 7. Traffic light negotiations have often fallen apart in other states in the past - notably in Berlin in 2001 and North Rhine-Westphalia in 2010. Then again, one traffic light was successfully turned on last year in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

"Kenya" (Red-Black-Green): SPD-CDU-Greens

As ideas go, a Kenya coalition (sometimes even called the Afghanistan coalition, seeing as that troubled state's flags features the same colors) seems like a sound option: the SPD and the CDU represent Germany's solid center, and the Greens are an unthreatening third party, happy to take over the Environment Ministry.

Symbolbild - Fahne Afghanistan

Whether called "Afghanistan" (flag above) or "Kenya," the Red-Black-Green coalition combination arises infrequently

But then again, given that the SPD and the CDU usually gain more than 50 percent of the vote, it's rarely an option that is called upon. So far, it has only come to pass in one state: last year in Saxony-Anhalt, when the SPD's vote collapsed, and the AfD took a quarter of the votes. It turns out that uncooperative electorates sometimes force parties to improvise.