Why is it so difficult to form a government in Germany?

29.11.2017 – Leo Mausbach

The German elections took place September 24, but still we don’t know for sure what the next federal government will look like. For now, the former government consisting of the Christian-democratic sister parties CDU/CSU and the social democratic SPD carries on without a parliamentary mandate.

Months of pre-negotiations about the formation of a so called “Jamaica”-coalition made up of the Christian-democrats, the free-market FDP and the leftist Greens ended in a failure. After discussions about a possible snap election, now difficult negotiations over a renewed “grand coalition” are expected. The German political system is very much consensus-oriented and the coalition of social democrats and Christian-democrats worked (and works) smoothly. So why is it so difficult to form a government?

The paradoxical answer is: just because of that. The differences between CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens and FDP in Germany have become so blurred that the parties crave for distinction, what obstructs the formation of coalitions. There are basically three reasons, why the main political movements have become so unbearably indiscernible.

Firstly, the German federal system makes it often necessary to obtain the approval of the majority of the federal states’ governments in the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament, similar to the Council of Ministers of the European Union. Since the 1990s, due to a fragmentation of the party scene, the coalitions on the level of federal states have become more and more diverse. Therefore, the governing coalition often lacked a majority in the Bundesrat, forcing the federal government to find cross-party compromises.

Secondly, Angela Merkel, who is German chancellor since 2005, tends to adopt popular political positions of the opposition. Her party follows her, since this opportunism allowed the Christian democrats to stay in office for over a decade, with no end in sight. The slightly schizophrenic reasoning goes: if we cannot win the controversy, it should be us to implement the policies we criticize, so we are able to alleviate the negative impact. The first of two textbook examples is the nuclear power phase-out, pushed through by the Green party in 2000, abolished by Merkel’s government in 2010, but finally reestablished in 2011, shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster had turned most Germans against the use of nuclear power. The second one is the introduction of a minimum wage, a central claim of the social democrats, which was for a long time fiercely opposed by the Christian democrats, until Merkel changed her mind in 2014. This corresponds with Merkel’s practice to avoid taking sides in ongoing political debates and, in the end, to adopt the position of the foreseeable winner.

There were two major exceptions from this rule, the reasons being intensely discussed between Angela Merkel’s supporters and her critics. Did she simply act according to her personal convictions? Or did she yield to the pressure of the published opinion? These two exceptions, the Eurozone crisis and the refugee crisis, lead us to the third reason for today’s difficulties to form a government. The decision to “rescue” Greece with the German taxpayer’s money was the origin of the party “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), directed against Merkel’s politics that she described as “without alternative”. Merkel claimed: “If the Euro fails, Europe fails”, making the bail-out a moral decision and closing the ranks behind her. If Germany doesn’t pay for Greece, Germans would be again guilty of a European catastrophe. It would have been the role of the libertarian FDP to question these politics, but the party was part of Merkel’s government and under high pressure by its coalition partner and the national and international public opinion. Accusations of lobbyism, a weak set of ministers and the bad reputation of the unprincipled “Umfallerpartei” (“the giving-in party”) led to the party’s traumatic exit from the Bundestag in 2013. The refugee crisis of 2015 made way for the further rise and a swing to the right of the AfD. Again, a highly moralized public debate, full of historical superlatives invoking German responsibility, made criticism difficult. Furthermore, the Bundestag, without FDP and AfD, lacked a right-wing opposition. This resulted in Germany experiencing highly polarizing political debates, with a large share of voters not feeling represented by the parliament. The FDP failed or was not able to address this electorate, that was in theory part of its target group. Now, after its return into parliament, the party had to show them that it will not again easily abandon its priciples and join a coalition with Merkel’s CDU and the Green party. So far, cancelling the talks was well received among the party’s supporters: according to the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung, the party gained 437 new members right after the decision.

What does this mean for the ongoing negotiations about the future German government? New elections will hardly provide a much different result, but they might further weaken the largest parties CDU/CSU and SPD. The social democrats are not keen to enter another coalition with Merkel, which left the SPD with the worst result since the foundation of the Federal Republic in 1949. However, president Steinmeier (who originates from the SPD) and most political commentators pressure the social democrats not to leave Germany without a government for further months. Also the French president Emmanuel Macron expects a partner to finally provide results for his ambitious plans to reform the Eurozone. So, would a continued coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD be toxic for the German democracy? Would it lead to a soaring support for the radical right, like in Austria? Probably not. The so called “grand coalition” will be much smaller: in 2013, CDU/CSU and SPD held 504 of 631 seats in parliament, whereas in 2017, the coalition makes up only 353 of 709 seats. The opposition, on the other hand, has grown stronger and, due to the entry of the AfD and the return of the FDP, much more diverse. It will be the task of the FDP and its charismatic head Christian Lindner to compete with the AfD for disappointed voters on the right. The break-up of the talks with Merkel’s CDU and the Green party might have been a start signal.