What is the matter with the German coalition talks?
Shaped by the experience of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s post-war constitution is obsessed with stable government. Any incoming government needs an absolute majority in an investiture vote in parliament. The only way to topple a sitting government is to vote in a new Chancellor with an absolute majority. Parliament cannot vote for it’s own dissolution.
But Germany has a PR-based electoral system, which means coalition government. Add on top of this the (relative) decline of Germany’s two major parties, and you end up with the result of the September election. Merkel’s CDU, their Bavarian sister party CSU and the SPD would still command a majority in parliament, but following their respective losses, this coalition would not be so Grand anymore. The Socialists on the very left and the AfD at the very right of the political spectrum are effectively ostracised, at least on the federal level. And so, the mystical beast of German Politics , the so-called Jamaica coalition (named after the colours of the parties involved), became the only option for forming a new government): a complex and somewhat self-contradictory four-party coalition of the CDU, CSU, the Greens, and the FDP.
Then, after six weeks and several self-imposed deadlines, the FDP walked out of the pre-negotiations (they had not even moved on to proper coalition talks). While it is difficult to see how Jamaica could work around the manifold disagreements, the other parties claim that they were close to an agreement, and the whole walkout looked a bit staged.
What will happen next in Germany?
But was is next for Germany? In her brief statement, Merkel has said that she will inform the President about the situation first thing in the morning. While the constitution is very rigid in almost any other way, it does not set a deadline for electing a new Chancellor. Merkel and her old ministers, including the ones from the SPD, remain in power as caretakers until the President of the Republic sets the process in motion by presenting his “nominee” for the Chancellorship to Parliament.
In almost 70 years of constitutional practice, the president has always waited until a viable coalition was formed, then nominated the leader of this coalition. There is no precedent for the current situation, but there is also no rush. The caretaker government even has a viable majority in parliament. Cue awkward metaphor involving estranged middle-aged couple, all geared up for divorce, but still living together in the house and even having sex occasionally (though not enjoying it much).
The President cannot simply dissolve parliament to trigger new elections, and parliament cannot bring the Merkel government down, unless (have you been paying attention?) they find a candidate who is elected with an absolute majority. Of course, Merkel could step down
or stage a lost vote of confidence, but first, why would she, and second, even that route to new elections is slow and fraught with difficulties. I got carried away here. The no-confidence-route is closed at the moment.
Germany actually has a government
The most likely outcome for tomorrow is that Merkel and the President will agree on waiting a bit longer. But for what exactly? The SPD have ruled out a coalition with the CDU/CSU in the strongest terms, and their leadership have re-iterated this position on Sunday, just a few hours before the talks collapsed. Taking these words back would be very difficult, particularly against the backdrop of their electoral meltdown during the last Grand Coalitions. However, having another election that would presumably further strengthen the smaller parties in general and the AfD in particular is not a very attractive proposition.
An alternative course could lead to a CDU/CSU/Green minority government, possibly propped up by the SPD and/or the FDP on an issue-by-issue basis. However, getting there is difficult, because the framers of the constitution abhorred the idea of minority government.
Minority government or new elections?
What ever the eventual outcome, it will start with the President nominating, at some point in the coming days/weeks/months, Merkel. Barring a coup, she is the leader of the strongest party and has the best chance of forming a government. The quorum for an absolute majority in the current Bundestag is 355 votes. If all CDU, CSU, and Green MPs would support her (and that is a big If), she would need 42 votes from the other parties. In a secret ballot of MPs who would rather not go to the country again, that is not impossible. If she gets that number, she will be sworn in, even if she has no stable majority I can the years to come.
If she does not achieve an absolute majority, we will be in uncharted territory, but the rules that were draw up almost 70 years ago are clear. There will be a two-week period during which the race is open for additional candidates, but Merkel (or, should she bow out, some other figure from the CDU) would still be the strongest contender. The Bundestag can hold an unlimited number of ballots during that period. MPs from other parties would have ample time for a change of heart. Whoever gets 355 votes in these contests will be Chancellor. And you know who stands the best chance to perform this feat.
If, after two weeks, no one has won an absolute majority, there will be a final ballot. If no candidate wins an absolute majority, the President has to make a choice: he can either swear in the person winning the plurality, or he can dissolve parliament.
Either way, populists will speak of collusion and blame the elites (which, Schroedinger’s cat like, simultaneously cannot get a their act together and frustrate the will of the people). Either way, both Germany and the EU will have to live with a less-than-stable situation in Berlin. The FDP might have hung on a little longer in this meeting room, or not have entered it in the first place,because, you know, responsibility?
Update (November 20)
The president has released a statement, in which he reminds the parties of their duty to form a government. They have “a responsibility … that one cannot simply hand back to the voters”. This does not look like snap elections. He also said that he will hold meetings with the presidents of the other top-tier institutions – parliament, Federal Council and Constitutional Court – to discuss the extraordinary situation.
Also published on Medium.