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.