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.
A mere three hours after the event, it’s obviously too early to write something coherent about the three state elections that were held in Germany today. So let’s try it anyway:
For the time being, Germany has a viable Radical Right Populist Party. A result of ~24% in the Eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt is a bit of a shock, but no huge surprise. The real clincher are the (low) double digit figures in the Western states of Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg. In the latter, the AfD is stronger than the SPD.
The AfD cannibalised all the smaller right-wing parties including the NPD.
This was not (just) a referendum on Merkel and her policies. While the issue dominated the campaigns, personalities and state-level factors were important. And the two CDU leaders who toyed with a (very tame) rebellion against Merkel did not gain from it.
The volatility is shocking. Period
German states have parliamentary systems, but popular minister presidents exerted an almost presidential effect. The contrast could not be more striking: In Baden-Württemberg, Kretschmann’s Greens are the strongest party (in itself something that is hard to believe), whereas their junior partner, the SPD, is heading for single-digit territory. One key reason is Kretschmann’s enormous popularity. In neighbouring Rheinland-Pfalz, minister president Dreyer has always been more popular than both her opponent and her SPD. But the latter steadily recovered in the polls over the last couple of weeks pull ahead of the CDU to become the strongest party with a respectable result. The Greens, on the other hand, lost two thirds of their support and might still end up without parliamentary representation. Being the smaller party in a coalition run by a popular minister president is not an attractive proposition these days.
Turnout is up, yet it’s the non-established AfD that benefits from it. As a rule of thumb, right-wing outfits in Germany have always performed best in low-turnout, second-order elections. But this time, exit polls suggest that at least in the East, former non-voters gave the AfD a huge boost.
Even the Washington Post has woken up to the fact that 25 years after the uprising in the GDR, Germany stubbornly remains divided economically, politically, and socially. In the great scheme of things, this may matter less than you might think: In Western Europe alone, the UK, Spain, Belgium, or Switzerland – countries that have been around as nation states for much longer than Germany’s current iteration – are similarly diverse.
But it keeps the German Politics crowd busy enough. I’m currently working on a piece that looks at the latest federal election in comparative (east vs west) perspective – something that I have done previously for the 1998, 2002, and 2009 elections (2005 was someone else’s turn). The biggest difference is of course in the results of the Left party, which, compared to the West German districts, is about four times as successful in the East (this figure is down from a 20:1 rate in the 1990s). But here is another Bundestagswahl fun fact: The Liberals – not longer represented in the federal parliament for the first time since 1949, because their national result was just below the five per cent electoral threshold – barely scraped beyond this threshold in the old West, where they garnered 5.1 per cent of the valid votes. Based on the western results, the former Christian Democrats/Liberal coalition could have continued. Once more, the Easterners brought about political change.
Those old enough to remember that Bill Murray had a career before Lost in Translation (or to remember Bill Murray) will instantly recognise this scene: Punxsutawney Phil is predicting six more electoral cycles of political misery for Germany’s Liberal Democrats. Granted that the animal is a bit on the small side, but first, This is not America, and second, the choice of rodent is rather apt: Aren’t we all guinea pigs when it comes to policy making?
Punxsutawney Phil predicting six more cycles of electoral Misery
The hopeful candidate molesting the furry bugger promises that he will listen, not ignore (whom?). He might change his mind once the beast sinks its front teeth into that yummy finger.
There may be a European election on, but around here, the big one is the local elections. In the plural: On my last count, I will have to vote for town mayor, town council, municipal mayor, municipal council, district council and perhaps even leader of the district council, though I’m not 100 per cent sure re the last one.
Important as they may be, local elections are the domain of the amateurs, as the old saying goes amongst German Political Scientist.1 To make things slightly worse, councillors are elected under an open list system (with not threshold), so there are some incentives to cultivate a personal vote, and quite some margin for error. So far, I have spotted few real howlers but then the Liberal Democrats (FDP), wiped out in the last Bundestag election and poised to do badly in the EP2014, decided to go for this year’s Bad Pun Award.
Another Campaign Poster from Hell
So the guy on the poster is literally fishing (or at least holding a rod while wearing a suit) in clear water (im Klaren, which, if you push it, could be read as a pun-within-the-pun on alcohol), as opposed to fishing in murky waters (im Trüben fishen). The latter used to mean “cheating” but has also acquired connotations of being lost. Say what?
But there is more. The candidate is also “ortsnah” (local, in a technical sense that never, ever applies to persons), as opposed to “weltfremd” (unworldly, stuck inside an ivory tower). One might argue that, on some level loosely attached to logic “ortsnah” and “weltfremd” are not exactly opposites but rather awkwardly related concepts. But quite possibly someone sensed a tension between “ort” (the local place) and “welt” (world) and decided that nothing says “local guy” quite like a misguided rhetorical flourish. With PR guys like this, who needs political enemies?
Party system change, illustrated. Germany’s FDP was represented in the federal parliament from 1949 until 2013. During this time, they were part of various government coalitions for more than four decades. In 2009, they managed to attract more than 14 per cent of the vote, their best national result ever. Many voters did not like them, but they served a purpose.
Today, FGW’s monthly newsletter reported public opinion on Russia, broke down by party leaning of the respondents. They could not provide information on FDP supporters, because they did not have enough cases for that.
It’s been a bit of a nailbiter yesterday, and every single pundit in the country must be rubbing their bloodshot eyes. So it’s obviously not a brilliant idea to blog about it just now. But there seems to be a largish elephant in the room (not related to sleep deprivation) that nobody seems to have noticed so far.
Without doubt, this is a very exciting result that warrants a lot of superlatives or near-superlatives. Merkel’s Christian Democrats have bounced back from their second-worst result since 1949 to heights they have not seen since the highly unusual 1990 (re-unification) election. At 41.5 per cent, they came awfully close to an outright majority, something they have not achieved since 1957 (although then they had a much bigger share of the vote ).
The Social Democrats, on the other hand, have hardly recovered from their devastating 2009 result. 25.7 per cent is still the second-worst result since the war. But the combined vote share of the two major parties – often described as ‘former major parties’ by pundits – has gone up for the first time since 2002.
Both the Greens (at some stage projected to garner 15 per cent) and the Left have lost more than 20 per cent of their support compared to their 2009 results, and for the first time since 1990, the number of parties in parliament has gone down. And that is of course because the FDP has gone from 14.6 per cent (their best result ever) to 4.8 per cent (their worst result ever) and is not represented in parliament for the first time since 1949.
To put this in perspective, let me remind you that during the 64 years, the FDP was not holding government positions only from 1956 to 1961, from 1966 to 1969, and from 1998 to 2009. In other words, they were in government for roughly 70 per cent of the time, usually holding key positions (Foreign Affairs, Economy, Justice) and punching far above their electoral weight. For most German Politics aficionados, it will take some time to get used to the idea of them not having a national presence. Moreover, their result, combined with the relatively strong showing of the AfD means that the number of wasted votes must be near its all time high, with proportionality going out of the window.
But there is something else.
The Coalition Could Have Had a Viable Majority in Parliament
In the past, the FDP has survived (and some times thrived) on a diet of tactical considerations. Their loyal supporters are few and far between, but often, supporters of the CDU would give them with their list votes to bring about a centre-right majority. Most of the time, the CDU would not openly encourage this behaviour but would also refrain from discouraging it. Sometimes, the two parties even came up with joint position papers for future governments, signalling that they were not exactly a pre-electoral alliance but very much part of the same camp.
But this year (following the FDP’s defeat in Bavaria only a week before the General election), the CDU sent out a clear, high-profile “everyone for themselves” message to their voters. I can see three reasons for that. First, recent electoral reforms designed to make the system more proportional mean that the CDU would not benefit from a by-product of tactical CDU/FDP voting, the so-called ‘surplus seats’. Second, the ‘loan vote’ strategy has recently backfired in Lower Saxony, leaving a weakened CDU on the opposition benches. Third, the CDU may well have anticipated a Grand Coalition after Bavaria, and in that case, bolstering the FDP would not have made sense.
But this was probably a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though it looked very close yesterday night, Merkel did not win an outright majority. Christian Democrats and FDP together, on the other hand, are stronger than the three left parties combined: 46.3 vs 42.7 per cent. That would have been enough for Merkel to continue the centre-right coalition (her preference), with the added benefit of having a much more docile, dependent partner.
Negotiating a coalition with the Social Democrats will be tough. The party is licking its wounds and is highly reluctant to enter such an arrangement after the 2009 disaster that followed their last co-operation with the Christian Democrats. A CDU/Green coalition, while arithmetically feasible, seems highly unlikely at the moment, so the SPD will try to extract a large premium from the Christian Democrats for going into government with them. In the end, coalition talks could fail, and Germany could go to the polls again.
Without doubt, this result is a great triumph for Merkel. But I think the CDU leadership may have outwitted themselves, and the stern, slightly grumpy expression Merkel wore as she left the celebrations seems to confirm it.
Support for the Major German Parties, Estimates and Predictions (Week 35, 2013)
Exactly three weeks before the 18th Bundestag election, it’s time for another look at the polls. This weekend brings six new entries: One late result from week 33 that was only published a week ago, three polls from week 34, and two that were conducted this week, with fieldwork done from Monday/Tuesday to Wednesday. For all purposes and intents, that means that any possible fallout from the Western (non-)intervention in Syria will not be reflected in the polls.
Raw Figures, Estimates and Predictions
As always, there is a good deal of variation in the published figures. The range for Merkel’s Christian Democratcs, for example, is 41 to 46 per cent. But for what it is worth, the model is ever more confident about the outcome of the election: The estimated probability of victory for the governing coalition is now 85 per cent (up from 78 per cent) even if one ignores tactical voting by CDU supporters. If this “loan vote” is factored in, the probability of a coalition victory is 94 per cent (up from 90). Unsurprisingly, the probability of a Red-Green majority is still estimated as zero.
Support for the Minor German Parties, Estimates and Predictions (Week 35, 2013)
The one remarkable change is the modest slump in support for the Greens, which have lost about two points over the last four weeks and are now well below their peak support of about 15 per cent in March. The slow upward trend of the Liberals is unbroken, and the Left is safely above the electoral threshold. Support for the two major parties is perfectly stable.
Since my interest here is (mostly) academic, I also began comparing past predictions (from week 33) with current estimates. The differences are small, but there is one interesting exception: Support for the Greens is now estimated to be 0.8 points lower than it should have been, given the information that was available two weeks ago. So it would seem that their support is indeed suffering from some random shock.
Today is the day of the televised debate between Steinbrück and Merkel (in Germany, known as “the Duel”). While we are professionally obliged to watch it, I don’t think that it will make much of a difference. Both candidates are extremely well known knowns. I also don’t think that Syria will matter for this campaign.
Have I just shot myself in the foot? Probably. Come back next week for the latest batch of surveys.
It is still silly campaign season in Germany, and the new exhibits just keep coming. Here is another one brought to you by the Party Formerly Known As The Guys Who Almost Stood Up Against The Bloody Spelling Reform Back In The 1990s.
Incidentally, the party also upset a lot of German teachers back in 1968 when they began styling their logo as F.D.P. (a violation of clause 102, subsection 2 of the German spelling code). They shed the dots back in 2001, when a youngish Guido Westerwelle took over and transformed the party. So possibly, just possibly, Regained. Full. Stops. Between. Buzzwords. Are. The. Message.