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 What Happens If No One Wants to Govern with Merkel? Are We All Belgians Now?
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.

Feb 202013
 

Once more, German authorities are pondering what to do with the extreme right NPD (officially “Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands / Die Volksunion” after merging with its longstanding competitor DVU). While the Federal Council (which represents the 16 federal states) has already applied for a ban, government and parliament have not yet decided whether they support this move. Only the Federal Constitutional Court can ban a party, only these three institutions can act as plaintiffs, and the hurdles are high, as a qualified majority of the eight judges sitting on the case would have to vote in favour.The last ban was issued in 1956, and the government is duly afraid of another failure after the 2003 disaster.

Interestingly, both the Federal Council’s activism and the other institutions’ reluctance are based on a confidential report by a joint working party compromised of security people from both tiers of government and led by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, i.e. one of the federal secret service agencies. In a shock move, the NPD has posted what appears to be a 140-page executive summary of this report on its website today. Apparently, the party leadership is of the opinion that they appear as mostly harmless in the dossier.

The three-part PDF, apparently a scan of a paper copy, looks genuine enough. Its style, diction and classic Word 95 typography are all in line with what one would expect from such a document, and so is its content. The 2003 disaster was due to the excessive number of activists who moonlighted for Germany’s many secret service. This time, the authors have gone to great pains to collate material that is both public and not produced bye “source”, i.e. paid informers within the party. Interestingly, the statements in the document are classified into two categories: “A” for people who were not informers after January 1, 2003 (but possibly before that date), and “AD” for people who were not on the payroll at the time they made the relevant statement.

Consequently, most of this stuff is disgusting but phrased so that it is right at the boundary of what is legally acceptable.  Germany’s extreme right has decades of experience in crafting their statements in a way that remains just under the constitutional radar. Going through that material, one can see why the party published it on its website and gets the impression that it will be different to ban the party without relying on internal communications. dossier 300x211 Germany: Right Wing NPD Posts Semi Secret File on Itself

One of the most interesting points is the recommendation. The paper suggests in rather strong terms that a ban feasible and proportionate and yet, the government dithers. This indicates that either the federal people on the working party were outvoted (which seems unlikely from the phrasing), or that there is a rift between the political leadership and the services.

A final point concerns the way through which the party got hold of the document. Today, the internet is rife with speculation: Has the NPD, for decades targeted by agents, in turn infiltrated the services? Given that relations between the services and the party have been too close for comfort in the past, that would not be entirely implausible. There is, however, a simpler explanation. The document is stamped “VS – nur für den Dienstgebrauch”, which is the lowest classification level. Such files are normally accessible by a large number of people within an office. Given the rather enthusiastic recommendation issued in the report and the reluctance of the government to act on it, it’s easy to imagine someone in an agency or a ministry leaking the paper to the press, where anyone could have passed it on to the party.

 Germany: Right Wing NPD Posts Semi Secret File on Itself
Jun 212012
 

Yesterday, the BBC’s man in Berlin discovered that there are constitutional limits to Merkel’s ability to somehow save the Euro. Following a constitutional amendment in the 1990s, article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that any further transfers of sovereignty to the EU require absolute two-thirds majorities in both the Bundestag and the Federal Council (which represents the Länder). That is a tough call. Her Majesty’s government may talk about red lines, Germany has them.

Just yesterday, the Federal Constitutional Court strengthened the role of parliament in a ruling on the decision through which the temporary bailout fund EFSF had been implemented last year. While this does not affect the EFSF’s status, it further increased the pressure on the government to liaise with parliament, the states, and the opposition parties.

Today, it briefly looked like the saga of saving the Euro could go ahead as far as Germany is concerned: Merkel’s coalition, the Social Democrats and the Greens declared that they had reached an agreement on the fiscal pact and the permanent ESF. That seemed to leave only the issue of securing a super-majority in the Federal Council, a formidable task in itself as the Länder are concerned about further restrictions on their already very limited spending powers.

Then, things got messy: the Left and a dissident MP declared that they would challenge the two treaties in the Federal Constitutional Court. The court in turn asked the Federal President not to sign the ratification bills into law for the time being so that they would have enough time to deliberate (once the treaties are ratified, a ruling by the FCC would be quite pointless). While this is not totally uncommon, the court held a press conference to make the public aware of the issue. It does not get much more uncommon in Germany. The president, who allegedly had been lobbied by the government to ratify the treaties before July was then forced to publicly declare that he would heed that request.

Like the content and the context of the bailout packages, all this is very unusual. Today’s events do not yet a constitute a constitutional crisis. But they do provide even more evidence  that we are living in very interesting times.

 Germany and the European Crisis: Confusion and Delay
Jun 042012
 

German politics never fails to amaze: After the Left parties successful attempt to condemn itself to irrelevance without actually splitting the party, the ball is back in the ruling coalition’s court. Today was the day of the ‘coalition summit’, i.e. a formal meeting of the respective leaders of the three parties in the chancellery. The main purpose of these summits is not normally to have a frank exchange of ideas, or to draw up grand designs – it’s a bit late for that in the electoral cycle anyway. Rather, they are shows of unity and determination. As such, they would normally end with a joint press conference or some other public display of sympathy and dynamism. Today, the three leaders left the chancellery in their limousines, denying us any comments, which of course looks like a statement in its own right.

Apparently, however, they have agreed on two things: After months of quarrelling, the coalition will initiate legislation on the ‘Betreuungsgeld’, a pet project of the Bavarian CSU. Over the last years, the government has invested heavily (by West German standards) in the development of state-run and state-sponsored day nurseries, and will have to invest a lot more to meet its targets. This is not exactly a Christian-conservative priority, and so the CSU wants an extra subsidy for parents who do not use these subsidised facilities. Large parts of the CDU are lukewarm at best, and the FDP says it’s nonsensical, but they will go ahead with it nonetheless because they accepted the idea in principle in the 2009 coalition talks. As a reward for them, the government will also initiate legislation on an FDP project: a subsidy/tax credit for private long-term care insurance contracts that complement the state-run long-term care insurance program. Experts disagree how much extra money will be needed for care, and it seems a little roundabout and not very liberal to tax people so that the government can then hand that money back in the form of subsidies to private companies that provide a service which the state cannot provide, but I trust that some people in the industry are very happy tonight. And yes, this is the very same government that insists on austerity and balanced budgets.

Back in 1951, Lasswell and Lerner defined policy as ‘a systematic attempt to shape the future’. But that was before the discipline invented symbolic politics, and I’m sure the coalition summit is exactly what they had in mind.

 German Coalition Summit: How not to kill any birds with a considerable number of stones
Mar 242009
 

Arguably, no western democracy has more surveillance cameras per citizen than the UK. I would also like to think that few European countries are collecting data on their citizens on such an Orwellian scale. In a recent report, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust has assessed 46 major government databases. Somewhat predictably, the result is devastating. Only six databases are “effective, proportionate and necessary”, 29 “have significant problems, and may be unlawful” whereas the remaining 11 are “almost certainly illegal under human rights or data protection law”.

Examples of the latter include the National DNA Database, which holds information on 2 million innocent people including 39,000 children, and (my pet hate) ONSET, a system which brings together information on children from various sources to predict which children will offend in the future. Another nightmare is the Jacqui Smith‘s dream project of a system that registers every phone call made, every email sent, and every visit to any web page.

While the traffic light system used by the trust conflates two distinct dimensions (efficiency and data protection standards/human rights), it is certainly useful to get an overview of a very complex situation, and to identify the biggest problems.

The publication of the report created quite a splash in the media. The Guardian highlights the case of a 13-year old with a criminal record for taking part in a playground fight, and a single mother who does not dare to discuss her mental problems with her GP for fear of loosing her children to the social services, though I could not find any sources for these examples. The BBC throws in an interview with Ross Anderson, Cambridge IT professor, and one of the authors of the report. And here are even more articles on the Rowntree report , most of them basically summarising the executive summary.

 Rowntree Trust Report: Britain a Database State, and not even efficient at that
Jan 082009
 

December 18 was the the day (or rather the night, as results were communicated at midnight) for UK academics: after years of preparation and second-guessing and months of waiting, the results of the 6th Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) were published. Every five years or so, the UK higher education funding councils examine the research output of the various “units of assessment” (i.e. departments) and publish a league table that is crucial for the allocation of “quality weighted research funding” (i.e. money) as well as for the reputation of a place. At the moment, the system is chiefly based on an evaluation of up to four publications per active researcher, which has lead to the creation of transfer market for scientists that ressembles professional football.

In every RAE since 1986, my institution has earned top grades. This time around, the marks are a bit more disaggregated, i.e. a percentage of 4*, 3* etc. work was published. But no matter which way you count and weight the results, we end up in the first place (tied with Sheffield but clearly ahead of Oxford and the LSE). Obviously, we are freaking happy.

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