If you have any interest at all in European politics, you will have noticed by now that the pre-coalition talks in Germany have collapsed on November 19. Because this could mean (amongst other things) fresh elections, and because Germans do not normally do crisis these days, and because a paralysed Germany has all sorts of implications for Europe, everyone got very excited for a while. Right now, my money is on a reprise of the so-called Grand Coalition (centre-left/centre right), if and when the SPD realises that they should be able to get major concessions.
In the meanwhile, if you want to catch up with the situation or a simply in the mood for a bit of Angst watching, here is a list of links I liked
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).
Jamaica no more?
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.
CDU-Greens Coalition: No Rush Please, We’re Hessian
A mere four months after the Hessian state election, the new CDU-Greens (aka black-green) coalition has duly confirmed Volker Bouffier as Minister President after one tiny glitch (more on that below). While the guys in Hesse took their time, everyone is now very excited, because a successful CDU-Greens coalition would open up a whole host of possibilities beyond the entrenched 2+(2+1) pattern of party competition in Germany.
It is not, however, exactly a first: From 2008 to 2010, the city state of Hamburg was governed by a black-green coalition, and from 2009, an even more unlikely ‘Jamaica’ (black-green-yellow, i.e. CDU/Green/FDP) coalition governed in the Saarland before it collapsed in 2011. The media’s official excuse for getting overexcited is that Hesse is the first ‘Flächenland’ (‘area state’, i.e. not a city state) where the new coalition format is tested. But the real reason is that Hesse is at the same time the most likely and the most unlikely place for such an experiment.
Why is Hesse Special?
Hesse holds a special place in the heart of every red-blooded German Politics anorak because it is unusual. Although it has a huge rural core and its traditional industries have been in decline for a very long time, it was dominated by the Social democrats for decades. Back in the 1980s, it became the test bed for red-green coalitions when a young Joschka Fischer was sworn in as the first green minister in Germany, wearing his trademark trainers (now kept in a museum).
Then, the tide turned. In 1999, Roland Koch won the election for the CDU and became Minister President, an office he held until he resigned in 2010 in a surprise move to take a job in the industry. Koch survived a major donation scandal as well as various minor scandals, a lost election (after which he hung on as head of a minority cabinet) and an endless string of controversies over his rather aggressive and often (right-wing) populist approach to politics. During his reign, Hesse’s party system became even more polarised and segmented than it had been in the past. And CDU-led government in Hesse seemed all but inevitable.
What’s in a Bunch of Names?
Back in 2008, Koch, proud bearer of a proper German name (which translates as ‘cook’), authorised a series of posters highlighting the fact that two of the opposition parties were indeed led by folks with very foreign-sounding names (Al-Wazir of the Greens and Ypsilanti of the SPD), while the third opposition party (led by someone with a less suspicious name) was labelled as “Communist”. His attitude left a lot of bad blood. Nonetheless, his successor (hint: French-sounding name), though a long-term ally of Koch and widely considered a law & order politician, was able to embark on a series of talks with all political parties after the election, which had given none of the usual proto-coalitions an outright majority.
More importantly, he convinced Al-Wazir, his old political enemy from the days when Bouffier was known (or admired) as the ‘Black Sheriff’ of Hessian Home Affairs, to become his deputy. During the talks, Bouffier emerged as an unexpectedly shrewd political operator who presented his party – in Hesse, the other Länder and perhaps even in Berlin – with a new option beyond the unloved Great Coalition and the outdated CDU/FDP formats. If a CDU-Greens coalition can work in Hesse, it might work just everywhere.
So what was the glitch? In the first ballot, some MPs were given ballot papers listing the candidate’s name as ‘Max Mustermann’ (Sam Specimen), a popular placeholder for document templates. Allegedly, at least one person voted for this familiar character. Consequently, a second ballot had to be held. The current rapprochement not withstanding, names still seem to be a bit of a problem in Hesse.
It’ another slow week for German politics, what with the Mandela Memorial, near-civil war in Thailand, the standoff in Ukraine and the South Korean/Japanese Chinese skirmishes. BUT: a small-scale CDU party conference of some 180 delegates has approved unanimously of the CDU/CSU/SPD agreement (a ‘Coalition Treaty’ in German parlance, though it can not be challenged in/enforced by the Constitutional Court). Delegates at a similar CSU conference have done their bit a month ago. Much more interesting is of course the case of the SPD, which put the agreement to a referendum by their 472,000 rank-and-file members.
The all-postal ballot will end tomorrow at midnight, and we will know the result on Saturday. So far, more than 300,000 people have voted. That alone is remarkable.
Last weekend, a conference of the party’s youth organisation passed a resolution that recommends members should vote against the agreement. The party leadership was less than delighted.
No one knows exactly what the rest of the members think. It’s entirely conceivable that a majority votes against, while it is inconceivable that the current leadership (broadly defined) that negotiated the agreement could survive such an embarrassment. The most likely outcome would be elections in February, though I’m sure that Merkel and the Greens would have another series of fireside chats if push came to shove. And if there were elections, the SPD would tank.
I’m sure the SPD members will bear this twin scenario in mind when they make their choice.
Coalition Talks: Not Quite as Speedy as Papal Election (and less fun)
It’s crunch time in Berlin: A mere two months after the election, both the SPD and Merkel’s CDU have announced that they want to resolve all remaining issues during yet another sleepless night of haggling (the Bavarian CSU is more reluctant). Tomorrow, they want to present the ‘coalition treaty’, a 170+ page agenda for the next four years. If the SPD’s restless rank-and-file will approve of this document is (quite literally) a question for another day.
First and foremost, this is a remarkable development in itself: Hesse has possibly one of the most polarised subnational party systems. Just a few years ago, then CDU leader and long-term minister president Roland Koch quite happily campaigned on the fact that the leaders of the SPD and the Greens had foreign-sounding names. But after the inconclusive election and four full rounds of sounding exercises involving all parties, a CDU/Green coalition is not longer unthinkable.
The Real Result: Less Segmentation?
But the Hessian regrouping also has a long-term, two-level strategic element (although all parties deny it): If the FDP does not rebound, the CDU needs an alternative. And much by the same token, the Greens don’t want to tie themselves too closely to the ailing SPD.
Black-green coalitions have been the stuff of political war games and academic debates for the last two decades. Now, they could become a reality. I’m not sure if the September election and this long, protracted negotiations in Berlin will indeed bring about a viable agreement between Christian Democrats and the SPD. But at any rate, they seem to have quickly reduced segmentation in the German party system.
This weekend, the SPD held their regular (bi-annual) party conference in Leipzig. In some alternate reality, this conference would have approved of the SPD/Green coalition agreement. Short of a resounding victory of the left, however, the leadership took a very interesting gamble when they decided in September that the party base should have a vote on the CDU/SPD agreement when (and if) the current negotiations with the Christian Democrats come to a happy conclusion.
But the event was nonetheless interesting for a number of reasons. First, even before the conference began, the leadership announced that the party would abolish their long-standing policy of non-cooperation with the Left party in the Western states and on the national level (the SPD had no such qualms in the East). This vow of abstinence had proved more and more problematic over the last years, and getting rid of it well ahead of the next election looks like a clever move. But making such a move during the ongoing negotiations was not exactly a subtle hint and also opens up the (very theoretical) possibility of changing sides during this parliament’s lifetime, what ever that may be.
Second, the current leadership was re-elected as planned, but the results were “honest”, which is SPD-speak for lousy. The party’s middle elites happily used the opportunity to vent their anger over the lost election and their frustration with the emerging coalition agreement. Third, the negotiations went on during the conference, but it was leaked that cordial agreement and professional respect had once more turned into shouting matches, and that impasses had been reached after weeks of seemingly smooth progress.
It doesn’t take my inner Machiavelli to smell a ruse within a feint within a plot. After Merkel has basically accepted the introduction of a national minimum wage (she rather disarmingly quoted a survey which showed 78 per cent support for the policy amongst her voters), the SPD more or less openly demand at least two major concessions which are symbolically charged and highly visible while being cheap in economic terms: gay marriage and dual citizenship. Moreover, the leadership hint that the members could still vote against the agreement. This is the classic board strategy (“Personally, I fully agree with you, but the board will never approve the deal if you don’t accept X”). That is one nice stratagem.
But unlike the rank and file members, parts of the SPD middle elites and probably the Christian Democrats, the SPD leadership is afraid of new elections in January. Given the current state of public opinion, the party might lose some more, which would cost them their offices. And Merkel’s CDU has a “board” of their own: their Bavarian sister party, which must also approve of any coalition agreement. German politics will remain interesting (by German standards) for weeks to come.
Globalisation is a wonderful thing. I just had a full Brazilian. Interview, that is. A journalist for Exeme sent me a mail with a couple of questions, I sent back my answers a few hours later and lo, thanks to broken English and the internet, the job is done, time difference and the Atlantic not withstanding. So here is my rather nuanced view:
All over the world, the views about the Euro crisis are seemingly becoming more apocalyptic. Analysts say it is “five minutes to 12”; that Europe has only 3 months left to act. In Germany, the clocks seem to run in a different timing when taking measures to tackle the crisis is concerned. How come?
Even 3 months might be an optimistic assessment, but actually nobody seems to know just how to put an end to this crisis. Over the last year or so, the German government has time and again agreed to (and sometimes proposed) measures that it considered unthinkable only months and weeks ago. Many times, Greece/the Euro/Europe were “saved”, only to find themselves in mortal danger the next week, so the public is growing tired. Yet, I think if the government had a clear strategy for solving the problem, it would act decisively.
The pressures for Germany to act (specially for Merkel) are growing by the day. Do the expectations this time have a different nature?
For a long time, observers in Germany and abroad were focused on yet more guarantees or loans. Only now citizens and politicians begin to realise that there is a political problem at the core of this crisis (i.e. a lack of integrated fiscal and redistributive policies in the Eurozone), but there is obviously no quick fix for this problem.
To which extension Merkel’s position reflects her own personality?
Merkel’s approach to policy making is pragmatic and incremental. She tends to act only if she has a clear understanding of the problem and if she is sure that she has enough political support.
Are there internal political reasons for Merkel not to act like other countries expect her to?
You bet. Merkel heads a coalition of three parties that disagree on many domestic issues. At the moment, it seems not likely that the coalition will win another term in the 2013 election. Saving Europe only adds to these woes. While her own CDU is staunchly pro-European, many of her MPs consider Germany’s responsibilities under the current bailout packages more than a little daunting. The CDU’s Christian-Democratic sister party CSU is a regional party whose main purpose is to protect Bavaria’s interest in Germany. They have a fair number of closet eurosceptics in their ranks. Finally, the liberal FDP has been teetering on the brink of self-destruction and electoral implosion for years now. They have faced a minor backbenchers’ rebellion over the bailout, and their leadership does not seem to believe that Greece can stay in the Eurozone. As far as the public is concerned, saving the Euro is not exactly a vote-getter. Germans were very reluctant to join the Euro in the first place. In real terms, their wages have stagnated over the last decade, and they have reluctantly accepted massive cuts in welfare programs. Over the last 22 years, the West-German majority has transferred a net sum of about one trillion Euros in East-Germany, and yet the Eastern states are lagging behind economically. A vast majority of the public is convinced that Greece cannot be kept within the Eurozone, and many believe that Greece is some sort of European welfare scrounger. The government has framed all previous bailouts as exceptional emergency measures and has made no attempts to prepare the public for any fundamental changes to the EU’s treaty base.
Which political groups play an important role as on views to tackle the crisis in Europe? Does the struggle between Merkel and SPD to ratify the fiscal pact represent something unusual for the political scene in Germany? Where do their positions are different, fundamentally?
The SPD’s support for the fiscal pact is a constitutional and political necessity. Regarding European affairs, there is normally a very broad consensus amongst the major German parties. The SPD backs the consolidation measures in principle but wants to ease the burden for the southern economies somewhat. They also believe that the EU should launch a stimulus program, and that the banks should contribute to the reconstruction of the Eurozone through a transaction tax. I’m sure that the SPD and the coalition will come to an agreement eventually.
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.
What makes the recent case unusual is its domestic background: First, Germany agreed to the original directive, which regulates the retention of traffic and location data, in 2006. In 2010, however, Germany’s powerful Federal Constitutional Court declared the German law that implemented the directive unconstitutional and therefore null and void, which chimes with last week’s seminar session on the perpetual conflict between European law and the German idea of constitutional review. The commission is used to this kind of trouble with the Germans and was prepared to wait a year or two for the Germans to draw up and vote on a constitutional implementation of the directive.
But, to use the rather indignant phrase from the commission’s statement the “German authorities have not indicated how and when they will adopt new legislation that fully complies with the Directive”. More specifically, the government cannot make up its mind. The home office, led by the centre-right CSU, complains that Germany must fulfil its obligations and urgently needs a law that implements the directive. The ministry of justice, which is controlled by the liberal FDP, blankly refuses to draw up such a bill, claiming that data retention is ineffective, and that the EU will soften up the current directive anyway. Yesterday’s sole comment from the ministry was that they “were not surprised” by the commission’s move. And so, Germany remains on its collision course because of a deadlock within the coalition.
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.