Politicians are by nature power junkies – keep them in the opposition long enough and eventually they'll end up in the arms of their most hated political adversaries.
And sure enough, that's exactly what happened this week in the northern port city of Hamburg when the environmentalist Greens entered a political marriage of convenience with the conservative Christian Democrats. On Thursday, the one-time adversaries announced they had forged an agreement to form a government in the city-state two months after elections there left the parliament with no obvious ruling coalition.
What? Tree-hugging lefties cuddling up to heartless conservatives? The political constellation is indeed an odd one and without historic precedent in Germany. But as exotic and exceptional as it seems, the so-called “black-green” coalition in Hamburg is simply the acknowledgment there has been a seismic shift in the country's political landscape.
Ever since the hard-line socialist Left Party started to expand from its predominately eastern base into western German state parliaments this year, the four other major parties have been struggling to adjust to the new reality that has rocked German politics.
For the past few decades Germany has had pretty straightforward options for two-party coalitions: either a centre-right alliance between the Christian Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or a centre-left one between the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. There have also been eastern exceptions like Berlin's double red coalition of Social Democrats and the Left Party, but such state alliances had little bearing on federal politics.
Hamburg's ‘black-green' coalition, however, could be different.
With the ascendant Left Party making it increasingly difficult for two parties alone to secure a stable majority at the state and federal levels, politicians are scrambling to make nice with colleagues for whom they previously had buckets of disdain. Hence Green “tree-huggers” are now willing to govern with “heartless” Christian Democrats.
What does it all mean for federal elections next year? The major political players are being coy – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an interview with public broadcaster ZDF on Thursday night that no one should read too much into Hamburg tie-up between her party and the Greens. "I say that black-green at federal level is very unlikely," Merkel said. "I am definitely not going to fight for it."
Leading Greens also quickly downplayed the idea that their party could overcome the considerable policy differences with the conservatives at the national level.
But let's not kid ourselves. If the only way Merkel can hang on to power in 2009 is by working with the Greens – who will have perhaps by then realized they can work well with the conservatives in places like Hamburg – then Berlin's politicians will open up a big can of Realpolitik with enough to go around for everyone.
Perhaps the most telling sign just how serious everyone is taking the groundbreaking ‘black-green' coalition on the banks of the Elbe is how the traditional allies of the two parties reacted like jilted lovers.
SPD Secretary General Hubertus Heil called it an “indiscriminate” coalition and the leader of the FDP, Guido Westerwelle, railed it showed just how far Merkel's conservatives had “lurched to the left.”
Perhaps. Or maybe Guido is just frightened at the prospect of getting left on the opposition bank next year while his former good friend Angie is building a 'black-green' cabinet. Maybe it's time for him to take Hubertus out for lunch.