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.