Mar 182012
 

Events in North Rhine-Westphalia are quickly becoming the stuff of legends. The end of the red-green minority government on Wednesday has triggered a series of reshuffles that would make Machiavelli dizzy.

First, Christian Lindner is back. In December, he stepped down from his job as secretary-general of the FPD for no apparent reason, declaring that he would rather dabble in local and state politics. Using latest remote-sensing techniques, political witchdoctors of all persuasions agreed that the prospect of showing up daily at FDP HQ for the foreseeable future (4-6 months) had become too depressing. Now, in one feel swoop, he replaced state party chair Daniel Bahr (who has a daytime job as federal minister for health) and sidelined the listless chair of the state parliamentary group (who is widely held responsible for the political disaster) to become the party’s frontrunner in the upcoming election. And yes, the three men took great care to let the public see that they had bypassed federal party chair Philipp Rösler.

Second, Norbert Röttgen, the reasonably popular federal minister for the environment (CDU) – yes, I combined these last three attributes in a rather unusual way – who was elected chair of the state CDU in November 2010 after winning a ballot amongst party members by the barest of majorities, decided to lead his party’s campaign. He could not have done anything else, but this move puts him and the federal government in a bit of a pickle, as everyone wonders whether he will take up his seat in the state parliament if he cannot become minister president. Not making a credible commitment at the outset will hurt his campaign before it has begun in earnest, so most probably he will have to give up a job he seems to like, and Merkel will lose a minister who was instrumental in selling her U-turn on nuclear energy. Bummer.

Third, Hannelore Kraft has overnight become a possible contender for the chancellor job. That, of course, was floated by her opponents to weaken her campaign, but the idea has gained such momentum over the weekend that she had to explicitly deny any ambitions to stand for chancellorship “before 2017”. Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.

Meanwhile in a rare turn of events, a (very implicit) prediction of mine is coming true. The centre-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that some law professors who specialise in constitutional law have called into question the legal advice on which the budget plan was declared failed in the second reading. Now, if the FPD had deemed it possible to delay the proceedings for further negotiations, the minority government would most certainly still be in office. In politics, just as in criminology, the most relevant question is usually “cui bono”.

Mar 142012
 

Much to everybody’s surprise, the minority government in North Rhine-Westphalia collapsed today. Minority governments are a rarity in Germany. The federal constitution, reflecting Germany’s inter-war experience of unstable governments and intense political strife, practically rules them out. Constitutional details at the state level differ but the general assumption is that the government needs the reliable support of a majority of MPs. The increasing fragmentation of the German party system, however, plays havoc with these constitutional patterns.

In 2010, the land election brought about political deadlock in NRW, a state that has roughly the size, population, and GDP of the Netherlands. Neither of the two major parties (SPD and CDU) could form a majority government without at least two of the three minor parties (the Greens, the FDP (liberals), and the Left). Lengthy negotiations to form a Grand coalition or various three party coalitions (CDU/FDP/Greens, SPD/Greens/Left, SPD/Greens/FDP) failed, leading to the eventual constitution of a red-green minority government that proved remarkably stable.

Its unexpected downfall resulted from a legal twist. Today, the state parliament voted on the budget in a second reading. During this session, votes were scheduled for every single chapter of the whole budget. Both FDP and the Left were set to vote against the government, expecting that they could extract concessions from the government before the third and final reading in two weeks time. But yesterday, constitutional lawyers working for the state parliament informed the parties that due to its specific structure, a vote against any chapter would terminate the budgetary process without a third reading. The government, on the other hand, had declared that it could not operate without a constitutional budget and would seek to dissolve parliament.

This left the FDP and the Left with the choice to lose face or risk the loss of parliamentary representation, as they are not doing well in the polls. This afternoon, they chose the latter. Elections will be held in May.

At the moment, we do not know who asked for the legal opinion, whether the advice was controversial, and why the budget was structured in such a peculiar way. The document has been leaked to the press, but has not been published in full.

A telephone poll by Infratest dimap predicts a majority for a new red-green coalition, with the FDP truly and well below the five percent threshold and results for the Left and the Pirate party to close to call. But this is, of course, just the beginning of the campaign.