How people elect parliaments
Nearly six months on from last year’s national elections, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will finally form a new government with a parliamentary mandate, after Social Democrat party members agreed to permit their representatives to join her cabinet.
The elections last September generated historically good results for Germany’s four minor parties – the Greens, the Free Democrats (FDP), the Left (die Linke) and the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD).
For 8 of the past 12 years Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) with their coalition partners in the state of Bavaria the Christian Social Union (CSU) have governed in a ‘grand coalition’ with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). After September, the SPD announced it wished to leave the coalition and instead go through a period outside government to try to restore its battered support among voters.
But delicate negations for Merkel’s first alternative, a three-way coalition including the Greens and the FDP, collapsed late last year.
Merkel’s parties and the Greens had apparently been willing to find brokered solutions to their many policy differences, as they have done in some German state governments. But the FDP under new leader Christian Lindner would not join in the compromises.
The gridlock has left Merkel and her government carrying on in an acting capacity for six months, but the sense of responsibility for giving the stability-loving country a workable result has also slowly forced the SPD back to the negotiating table.
In the new coalition deal announced in recent weeks, the SPD won significant policy concessions from the CDU-CSU, and a cabinet make-up very favourable to the SPD given the parties respective vote shares. SPD will have 6 cabinet positions to the CDU’s 5 and the CSU’s 3, and SPD will receive both the foreign ministry and the economic ministry.
CDU members might be entitled to feel the deal has traded away much of their power and policy positions, given that they were clearly the most favoured party at the elections.
But the more immediate problem was appeasing the SPD’s rank and file members. The government agreement included a requirement for a mass vote of SPD members to approve the arrangement, to give the party leaders political coverage from their restless membership.
On the weekend the postal ballot of 460,000 SPD members has now approved the arrangement, with a solid 66% voting in favour.
The situation may yet cause the SPD to bleed public support to the other left parties the Greens and die Linke, unless the benefits of government influence can somehow turn their position around during the coming term.
The alternative to this weekend’s deal, which will formally be concluded by a vote in the Bundestag on March 14, was probably new elections that might have changed little.
Polling of German partisan support shows that the only thing changing since the last election is actually a slight growth in minor party support.
Aggregates from poll monitors such as Europe Elects indicates that the FDP support is down slightly, perhaps because some of the their supporters are disappointed that they did not take the offer of a government role when they had the opportunity.
But support for each of AfD, die Linke and the Greens has eased upwards.
Support for the SPD has continued to reach new historical lows, down from the September’s 20% to around 17-18% (with one poll even showing 15% support).
If new elections were held now, the only likely outcome is pretty much the same as the current political scenario.
The mechanics of seat allocation in the Bundestag under Germany’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) system is driven by a curious electoral system anomaly: the CSU party in Bavaria currently wins all 46 local seats in that state with just over 6% of the national vote, but as the relative numbers of the seven parties must end up strictly proportional to national vote shares, the seat numbers for all the minor parties are ballooning up to highly inflated numbers.
If the trend for minor party support were to continue (and in particular, if the CDU-CSU vote were to stray significantly further towards the AfD vote), a fresh election could even bring about the result where the combined seat total of the CDU/CSU/SPD could fall below a majority of Bundestag seats.
At present the parties of the grand coalition holds 399 out of 709 seats. If a new election followed current poll results (and the CSU kept winning al the local Bavarian seats), the outcome would be around 379 seats out of 713 – only around 20 seats above the majority number.
While the prospect of the four minor parties having more seats in total than the two major parties would seem like a new form of crisis, it would also almost certainly prompt the FDP to come off the fence and reconsider joining government, with the Greens already indicating willingness to do so.