How people elect parliaments
Government-formation negotiations flowing from September’s national Bundestag election in Germany is proving difficult, with talks over a three-party coalition collapsing earlier this month.
Current Chancellor Angela Merkel had been seeking to form a ‘Jamaica’ coalition with the Free Democrat party and the Greens, but negotiations have been called off..
The situation raises the prospect of fresh elections, although the largest political players have strong reasons to avoid such an outcome.
Under the German Constitution, after each election the Bundestag is meant to elect a Chancellor capable of forming a majority government.
Chancellor Merkel is seeking a fourth such mandate, having served three consecutive four-year terms.
But Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrat CDU/CSU parties (the CSU being the Bavarian member of her national party) has never won a majority of the seats in the Bundestag in its own right.
In her first (2005-09) and third (2013-17) terms of government, Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU party governed in a ‘grand coalition’ with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD).
Over several decades, the CDU/CSU-SPD coalition option has on multiple occasions seemed preferable to the alternative of the largest major party having to join with more extreme minor parties.
Such coalitions have secured stable government for Germany, but at the considerable cost of clarity about which policies and leaders the electorate thought they were voting for.
While many Germans seem to support trading off policy accountability in return for stable government (and with it undisputed strong economic outcomes and social freedoms), it is also likely that in recent years many voters have turned to the only effective form of opposition to the incumbent government – increasing their support for minor parties.
Germany now has four parliamentary minor parties – the well established and government-experienced liberal-right Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, together with the newer, more eastern-state based parties The Left and the populist-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
The newer two parties are generally scorned as government partners. While The Left is beginning to become acceptable as a coalition partner for the SDP in Berlin and the eastern states, the AfD remains politically untouchable by all the other five parties.
In September’s election all six parties won seats, with the CDU/CSU falling backwards from 311 to 246 seats, and the SPD also falling from 193 to 153 seats.
The AfD entered the Bundestag for the first time with 94 seats, the FDP won 80 seats, The Left 69 seats, and the Greens 67. The total number of seats for the four minor parties was easily the largest ever.
But post-election, the SDP and its leader Martin Schulz changed the political landscape by refusing to continue in the grand coalition with the CDU/CSU. Their attitude recognized that their vote was falling sharply due to the strains of governing as the minor coalition partner.
The SDP’s decision to withdraw left Merkel with only one acceptable majority coalition, with both the FDP and the Greens, known as the ‘Jamaica’ option after the respective black-yellow-green party colours.
But after several weeks of patient discussions, the coalition negotiations failed to meet deadlines and ultimately collapsed some days ago.
Most accounts hold the FDP and its leader Christian Lindner to be responsible for ending the discussions. Formerly a centrist party, the FDP has drifted rightward, and was apparently unwilling to reach compromises with Green negotiators over immigration and other issues.
Despite their strong policy differences, the CDU and the Greens have managed to forge compromise government deals in several German states.
The German Greens have evolved over the decades into an established, government-experiences political party.
Indeed, had the recent negotiations come off, the Greens party would have been a member of more of the 17 national and state governments in Germany than even the two major parties.
Senior German figures are now striving to hold the situation together and, mainly, avoid a fresh election. Assuming that Merkel can only win support from a plurality of the Bundestag members in a vote in the days ahead, as is highly likely, the nation’s constitutional President will then need to decide whether to allow that course, or order a fresh election – How Early General Federal Elections Can Be Held in Germany (James Bowden, Parliamentum, 27 November).
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was appointed earlier this year, and has ample political experience with which to judge the present situation. Steinmeier is a former senior SPD politician, having served as chief of staff to former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroder at state and federal level, then later as SPD leader, including as Foreign Minister in Merkel’s first and third governments, and as opposition leader in the Bundestag during her 2nd government.
In recent days, after meetings with the President and under significant political urging, the SPD leadership has moved to make possible a backdown on its no-grand-coailtion position – Germany’s SPD is ready for talks to end coalition deadlock (Guardian, 24 November), German Social Democrats open to talks with Merkel (Politico, 24 November).
Martin Schulz has revealed that the SPD party will now poll its members, both to gauge their mood and also perhaps to create political licence to return to governing with Merkel.
But the ongoing political faultline in Germany does appear to remain that between the two largest parties, which have compromised one another’s policy base through years of joint government, and the more vibrant attractions of the minor parties.
Some commentators have reported that Germany is in crisis, and that the situation, and the possibility of minority government, weakens the nation’s (or Merkel’s) international influence.
Pro-Brexit British press outlets have taken particular delight in the present German political situation.
More sober reflections point out that minority governments are commonplace in the single-member division electoral systems of the UK, Canada and Australia, and that German’s proportional representation political culture has proved to be strongly self-stabilising over the decades – Reports of the death of German stability are greatly exaggerated (Keine Panik, The Econmomist, 21 November); There’s only one sick country in Europe – and it’s not Germany (Will Hutton, the Guardian, 26 November).
The alternative to either a new grand CDU/CSU-SPD coalition, or a minority CDU/CSU government, remains a fresh election. Despite the broad national desire to resolve the situation, polls show clearly that neither of the large parties can expect to be anything but worse off from such a new election.
In consistent national polling the four minor parties are certainly holding their vote shares of between 9% and 15% – all well above the 5% threshold to earn them seats in the Bundestag.
But there is an even more awkward mathematical quirk at work in the Bundestag electoral system.
In addition to the general guarantee of seats for all parties polling above 5%, under the German MMP proportional electoral system the interaction of the base of 299 fixed seats that are directly elected by plurality voting with the court-ruled constitutional guarantee that each party will have numbers of seats in correct proportion to their total national vote shares has started to malfunction.
The problem arises in Bavaria, where the CSU party’s voter support is so solid, and the left-wing and minor parties are so divided, that in this year’s elections the CSU won all the 46 plurality-elected local seats in the state. (In any other first-past-the-post electoral system, this would be considered an absurd landslide.)
But separately, the CSU’s overall share of the national vote is still only around 6%. This means that every other party’s Bundestag seat total must be scaled up in correct ratio to the CSU’s starting total.
In consequence, the CSU gets no more proportional list seats, and the CDU and the SPD get very few, but the four minor parties each get between 60 and 90, according to how they poll. The outcome has caused the size of the Bundestag to balloon from its nominal membership of 598 seats to well over 700 seats.
The problem will be structurally hard to fix. No-one is going to want to raise the seat threshold above the traditional 5% level, and the court interpretations of constitutional requirements for party proportionality will also not be easily overturned.
Unless the CSU could helpfully start losing a few local seats in Bavaria, new elections will solve little of the current allotment of seats in the national parliament. (In fact, the four minor parties actually have a strong incentive to keep the CSU winning all the local Bavarian seats.)
Since on current polls the CDU and SPD seem to have actually shed a little voter support since the September election, and the minor parties held their own or gained slightly, there is very little prospect that fresh elections would change the situation at all.
One recent poll by the Civey group even had the four minor parties doing well enough that the Bundestag would expand yet further in size to an extraordinary 813 seats, with the minor parties together taking 407 seats and the two major parties’ 406.
While there is no chance of the four minor parties cooperating closely, such an outcome would only worsen the political gridlock.
With this electoral reality in mind, the likely outcome from here is that either the grand coalition will be renewed, or negotiations for the Jamaica option will be rebirthed. The SPD and the FDP may start to see that if they continue to refuse to join Merkel’s 4th government, they will be the ones to miss out.
Chancellor Merkel may be obliged to carry on in a minority government condition for some time until a negotiated solution can be found.
German economic and state administration will, meanwhile, no doubt continue to function with little difficulty.
The German left should demand a high price to prop up Merkel (Paul Mason, Guardian, 28 November)