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 152013
 

State of Play: From Momentum to Peer’s Finger

The German media have been particularly excitable this week. They kicked off with floating the idea that there was momentum in the polls (“SPD up by almost two points!”) and concluded with covering the infamous magazine cover portraying Peer Steinbrück flaunting his finger. Moreover, the idea that the eurosceptic AfD might enter parliament has gained some traction. Of course, there is zero new evidence, but some days ago a leading pollster said that he could not rule out a result north of five per cent (the threshold).

Given that they have been polling between three and four per cent and considering the margin of error, that is a very sensible statement. By this morning, it had morphed into “Pollsters Expect that AfD will force Grand Coalition”. My totally scientifically objective hybrid human-computer qualitative analysis of the press (i.e. me browsing the internet) shows that the more pro-business papers are pushing that story – presumably because the AfD’s leader, a professor of macro economics, has the ear of a few editors.

The party does have, however, an unusually strong social media presence. If that is indicative of anything is anyone’s guess.

The Polls

The most recent iteration includes three new polls from week 36 (the week after the debate) as well as two from this week, and they are as noisy as ever. Ratings for the CDU are particularly variable (between 39 and 44 per cent), which is to be expected since the sampling error is bigger for parties that are close to 50 per cent. But according to model, this is mostly noise, and the party is still solidly somewhere in the area of 40 per cent (or slightly more).

majorparties-week-37.png

Estimates/Predictions for the Major German Parties (2013). Click for larger image

The SPD’s support has indeed risen a bit over the last couple of weeks (all polls before finger-gate). But in the great scheme of things, that does not seem to matter much: The party is still stuck well under 30 per cent. Looking on the bright side, they will probably do better than the abysmal 23 per cent they got in 2009.

The decline of the Greens seems to be levelling out. Their recent drop in popularity not withstanding, the model predicts that the party will come third at about ten percent.

Support for the Left is basically constant and stable, while the FDP continues to inch upward. According to the model, Merkel’s preferred coalition partner will almost certainly make it into parliament.

minorparties-week-37.png

Estimates/Predictions for the Smaller German Parties (2013). Click for larger image

The estimated probability of a new mandate for the current coalition is now 89 per cent. If tactical voting is taken into account, that number goes up to 94 per cent. The probability of a red-green majority is constant at virtually zero per cent. The SPD has repeatedly ruled out that they would accept any arrangement involving the Left. In line with previous posts, I assume that there is a 10 per cent chance that they nonetheless consider the unspeakable. Plugging this into the calculation, the probability of Merkel winning a third term is estimated at 98.9/99.4 per cent (with/without tactical voting for the FDP).

The Outlook

Over the next six days, the CDU’s main problem will be the complacency of their voters: With the race virtually run, they might simply be too lazy to turn out to vote. The SPD, on the other hand, seems to be making very small noises that imply that they might be interested in entering another Not-So-Grand Coalition. And the FDP will make a desperate appeal to their supporters (whom?) while trying to convince at least some CDU voters that yellow-blue is the new black.

Much will depend on the outcome of today’s state election in Bavaria: While Bavaria is basically representative for, well, Bavaria, politicians, journalists and voters will inevitably take it as a bellwether for the big one. Let’s wait and see then, shall we?