Nov 132015


Germany’s restrictive bioethics legislation in general, and its very tight rules on embryology and fertilisation in particular, present a puzzle for political science. Early on, the country has enacted liberal rules in other moral policy domains, most notably the abortion law of 1975 (Richardt, 2003: 113). The full range of prenatal diagnosis is available to German women, and the 1995 amendment has de facto legalised late abortions of otherwise viable babies with genetic or other defects right up to the moment of birth (Hashiloni-Dolev, 2007: 85) Yet, paradoxically, Germany’s 1990 Embryo Protection Act (EPA, 1990) gives absolute protection to fertilised eggs (zygotes)1 before implantation in the womb and so remains “one of the strictest laws on human embryology and fertilization in Europe” (Richardt, 2003: 112).

As usual, Germany is a strange place. A partial explanation is in my recent article (open access): Strange bedfellows: the Bundestag’s free vote on pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) reveals how Germany’s restrictive bioethics legislation is shaped by a Christian Democratic/New Left issue-coalition | Research & Politics


Feb 272015

Update: 542 in favour, 32 voting against, 13 abstentions. Nays & abstentions all from CDU, CSU, Left, apparently. See you in June.

In about an hour, Germany’s parliament will have a debate on the extension of the bailout program for Greece that is scheduled to take all of a cool 90 minutes. It will be followed by a roll call vote. Although about 30 CDU/CSU dissidents including the deputy of the Christian Democrats’ parliamentary  will vote against the government’s proposal or abstain, some North Korean-sized super majority is virtually guaranteed: The SPD and the Greens are almost unanimously in favour, and even the Left, who normally votes against the “neoliberal” EU stuff will support their comrades in Athens this time ’round.

Then, it’s back to normal. Expect a similar procedure four months down the line, just in time for the next instalment of the Great Greek/European Drama Series (TM). In the meantime, don’t forget that V is for Varoufakis.



Sep 252013

What’s the Matter with Germany?

At least in Germany, people begin to realise that Merkel may have painted herself into a corner by winning so gloriously (told you so first thing on Monday). While her Christian Democrats are by far the largest party group in the new Bundestag, she needs a coalition partner, but nobody wants to play.

Kanzleramt in Berlin
Werner Kunz / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The Social Democrats are not exactly keen to form a coalition with Merkel. They came out of the last Grand Coalition (2005-2009) very badly damaged and have hardly recovered from that electoral blow. And a new CDU/SPD coalition would be not so ‘grand’ any more. In 2005, the SPD and the Christian Democrats were not so far apart in terms of votes won. This time, there is a 16 point gap between the two.

The important NRW state party, which represents roughly a quarter of the party’s total membership,  is positioning itself against a Not-So-Grand Coalition. The party’s left-wing opposes on principal grounds, and because they feel that this would further strengthen the Left party. The party leadership is officially stalling just a bit, saying the situation is open. Talks will be ‘ergebnisoffen’ – non-directive. And they are seriously telling the Greens that it’s a dirty job, so perhaps they should do it.

A CDU/Green coalition on the other hand, while not impossible, is unlikely. The idea was all the rage a couple of years ago, but it did not work well in the Länder. Moreover, the party has moved to the left during the campaign (something they are regretting now) and returned to a more polarised view of the political world. The party leadership has resigned over the slightly disappointing result. Some of them will return, but it is not yet clear what the balance of power within the party will look like, and any new leadership will find it extremely difficult to sell a coalition with Merkel to the rank-and-file, who have a de facto veto.

This may very well be a thinly disguised attempt to drive the price of a black-red (or black-green) coalition upwards. In 1998 and 2002, it took roughly a month to form a government. In 2005, SPD and CDU needed 55 days. In 2009, the FDP/CDU/CSU government was sworn in about 40 days after the election. But what will happen if both the Greens and the SPD refuse to play (it is still silly season, but nobody’s talking CDU/Left. Yet)?

Is a Minority Government Possible? Will There Be New Elections?

In Germany, there is always a procedure, and in this case, it is spelled out in the constitution, whose framers were obsessed with stability (for very good reasons). The new parliament will be convened on October 22, 30 days after the election. That is the constitutional maximum. With this first plenary meeting (parliamentary parties haven been holding business meetings since Monday), Merkel’s second term as Chancellor will end, and so will the tenure of her ministers. The Federal President will however ask her ‘to continue to manage Germany’s affairs’ until a successor is appointed, and she is obliged to heed that request. So are the ministers. There is no ‘gap’: We’ll always have someone who tells us what to do.

The president will then go to parliament and propose a successor. But ‘then’ is relative. Interestingly, the constitution which is usually very precise, does not stipulate a time-frame. Leading commentators say the time-frame must be ‘appropriate’. Four weeks are ok. Six weeks would be ok, too, I think. But how much longer?

In theory, the president could come up with any proposal, but in practice, his suggestion has always been based on a viable coalition agreement between the parties, since his proposal must be confirmed by more than one half of its members (as opposed to more than half the members happening to be in the chamber at that point). The constitution is extremely wary of unstable majorities, let alone minority government.

Should the president’s candidate not be elected (this has never happened in the past), parliament has 14 days to make up their minds. During this period, they can elect anyone who manages to get the votes of more than half of the members without the president having any say.

Failing this, parliament will have one last vote on the Chancellor. Under this rule, the person receiving the most votes wins. If, by some happy coincidence, the number of these votes exceeds the number of half the members of parliament, the new Chancellor is sworn in and appointed. If it is less, the president has a choice: Within seven days, he can either appoint the Chancellor to lead a minority government or trigger new elections. Again, the choice is his in theory, but in practice, he would consult with the parties.

So where does that leave us?

Should both the Greens and the SPD refuse to join a Merkel government, they could still form a coalition with the Left or negotiate a toleration arrangement. But that seems unlikely, since the political costs would be very high, and it is not clear that all leftist MPs would vote for him. A small group of SPD and/or Green MPs could vote for Merkel to get on with it, without the parties entering a formal coalition, or one of the two parties could officially decide to tolerate her. As long as that would give her a majority in the inaugural vote, the president would have to appoint her. Or the parties could agree on having another election, with unknown consequences (AfD and/or FDP entering parliament, losses for all but the Left?).

Given these prospects, a CDU/SPD coalition will probably look like the lesser evil once everybody has calmed down a bit. But that might take some time.

Sep 032013

Is this serious?

Many of the activities parties would have done in-house during a campaign in bygone times have now been outsourced to agencies. This was nicely illustrated last week by a mildly embarrassing incident: The liberal FDP and the right-wing extremist NPD were using the same stock video footage of a happy family. So was a Finnish dairy company.

But some of the smaller parties still put people on their posters who are most probably not professional models. Today’s exhibit is widely deployed by the Pirate party. The caption reads (in my clunky translation) “Not for sale. Just eligible”. The latter does clearly not apply to the two youngsters. But if their elderly companion was a real candidate, shouldn’t they put her name on the poster? So: Are these real rank-and-file party members, or is this another stock photo otherwise used for … whatever?

Aug 162013

The Polls Are Noisy

Just over five weeks before the Bundestag election, there is much merriment about the current state of play. Support for the Liberals has been consistently below the electoral threshold of  five per cent for months, which implies that Merkel’s coalition would not be able to continue after September. Consequently, everyone is very excited about a more recent series of polls, which put the party at exactly five per cent. But even with n=2000, an exact confidence interval would range from 4 to 6 per cent. Add multistage sampling, house effects, and the fact that people do not necessarily know how they will vote in September, and you end up with a lot of noise.

Support for Major German Parties (2013)

Support for the Two Major German Parties in 2013

How much noise exactly? The good folks at publish marginal distributions for six major companies that regularly conduct random polls. I wrote a little program to collects everything published since January (the exact election date was officially determined on February 8 but was negotiated between the parties in January). Here are the results (click to enlarge).

Most polls are in the field for two to seven days, so I anchored them at their midpoints. My current data set spans 31 weeks, with just under 4 polls conducted each week.

Polling the German Election Polls

It’s obvious that there is a lot of variation in these 120 data points, making claims that this party has declined while another one surges rather dubious (though they still make excellent headlines). Poll aggregation is one possible and increasingly way out of this conundrum, so I decided to get my hands dirty, install (r)jags and bite the Bayesian bullet (something I have meant to do for years).

Support for Smaller German Parties in 2013

Support for three of the Smaller German Parties (2013)

My model is rather simplistic (I’ll post the code once it has stabilised). I assume that reported voting intentions are distributed multinomial, and that they depend on a) latent party support and b) house effects. I further make the rather heroic assumption that house effects are random with a mean of zero. Latent party support, on the other hand, follows a random walk, possibly with a drift: This week’s support is last week’s support plus some random change due to political events, plus some constant that accounts for steady up- or downward trends.

The Bayesian framework seems particularly appropriate here as it is technically and conceptually easy to come up with predictions for September 22, but I refrain from incorporating any prior beliefs and put vague distributions on all parameters. As far as I can tell (and that does not mean a lot), the model seems to converge without problems.

Estimated Support for Major German Parties 2013

Estimated and Predicted Support for Major German Parties (2013)

Somewhat surprisingly,the 95 per cent credibility interval (the shaded area around the trend line) is rather narrow for both the CDU and the SPD, implying that we can learn a lot from pooling many noisy polls. Support for Merkel’s Christian democrats was largely stable over the last seven months at about 42 per cent. This would make them the strongest party by far, although they are far away from the lofty 50 per cent they reached in some polls in April and June. According to the model, support for the Socialdemocrats is similarly stable, though at a much lower level of 26 per cent.

The predictions (to the right of the vertical line that marks the beginning of the last week included in the model) are less precise than the estimates, and become more vague as they extend towards election day, but it seems almost certain that the CDU will be the strongest party in the new parliament by a fair margin.

Predicted Support for Smaller German Parties

Estimated and Predicted Support for Smaller Parties in Germany (2013)

The model is also very confident about levels of support for the smaller parties. Green support peaked in March, but current and predicted levels are still above 12 per cent, which would be an improvement on the 2009 result. But since the SPD is so weak, the probability of a “Red-Green” majority in the next Bundestag is estimated to be (much) less than one per cent.

Support for the Left is estimated at about seven per cent, well above the threshold (the dashed line), but also well below their very strong result in 2009.

Finally, the FDP has shown an upward trend over the last 10 weeks or so and is projected to cross the threshold just in time for the election. The model estimates the probability of the FDP returning to parliament at 67 per cent.

Predicting the Inevitable

In reality, a sufficient number of potentially CDU voters might support the FDP for tactical reasons, pushing up that number towards certainty. But the coalition could come to an end even if that manoeuvre succeeds: The odds that the coalition garners more votes than the three left parties together are only slightly better than even at 58 per cent.

A “Red-Red-Green” coalition (or rather a Red-Green government tolerated by the Left), however, seems politically infeasible, suggesting a return to a Great Coalition lead by Angela M. with a subjective probability of at least 90 per cent.

If (if!) I take these estimates seriously for just one moment, that means that probability of Ms Merkel retaining her office is roughly 96 per cent. Let’s see how the next batch of polls plays havoc with this figure, shall we?