In my preview of the elections of September, and in another entry on Germany, I already laid out some of the context of Sunday’s German parliamentary elections, including the rather strange way in which this election got called ahead of schedule.
DW has a good overview of the highlights of the campaign.
As the campaign started, it looked certain that the conservative Christian Democrats, headed by Angela Merkel, would win and form a government with the liberal Free Democratic Party, thus returning Germany to the center-right formula that had been in place from 1982 until 1998, when the current Social Democraticâ€“Green coalition won.
But there is a reason we have election campaigns, and as this one went on, the parties’ fortunes shifted quite a bit. It now looks to be a very close election. (And, if you have not figured it out by now, I love a close election!)
The results could bring back for another full 5-year term the present center-left government, or could usher in a center-right government. There is even a possibility of a Grand Coalition, whereby the Social Democrats would remain in a coalition with the Christan Democrats, thus spanning from left to right. Germany had such a coalition once before, in 1966â€“69. It could be made necessary by the impracticality under the German constitution of having a minority government.
Because in Germany a cabinet must be formally elected by a majority of all members of the Bundestag (lower house of parliament), a coalition that controls less than half the seats can not take power (i.e. based on abstentions by other parties willing to tolerate it even if they do not formally join it). In other words, the SPD could lose but be essentially drafted back into power with its main adversary by this provision of the German constitution.
Like New Zealand, which also has an election this weekend that I reported on earlier today, Germany uses a mixed-member proportional electoral system. Unlike New Zealand, there is no real uncertainty about which parties are going to get into parliament nor any parties relying on possible victory in single-seat districts to waive the 5% threshold. (In Germany, waiving the threshold requires winning three districts, compared to one in NZ, though it is worth noting that 3 out of Germany’s 300 districts is actually a smaller share than 1 out of New Zealand’s 62.)
Thus the election comes down strictly to the shares of party-list votes that will be won by the following parties:
Social Democratic (SPD)â€”Schroeder’s party.
Greenâ€”the coalition partner in the current SPD-led government.
Christian Democratic Union (CDU)â€”the main center-right party, led currently by Angel Merkel (and formerly by Helmut Kohl).
Free Democratic (FDP)â€”a liberal party (in the European sense of the term) that was in coalition with the CDU when Kohl was Chancellor, and in the more distant past has formed coalitions with the SDP.
Linke/PDSâ€”this is a new alliance that combines the Democratic Socialist Party (PDS, the former Communists of the old East Germany) with splinters who left the SPD over Schroeder’s reform program.
The PDS currently has just two seats; by not getting 3 districts and by winning only 4% of the national party vote, it won no seats off its party list. However, the new Linke has been polling above 10% at least until very recently, when Schroeder’s recovery in the polls seems to have brought some wayward leftist voters back to the SPD.
Still, it looks like Die Linke will win between 7 and 9% of the vote, and it could be the third largest party in parliament after the election. But there is virtually no chance that there would be a left coalition of the SPD, Greens, and Linke. The SPD would never want to legitimize the ex-Communists at the national level or to be forced to share power with defectors form its own ranks.
If German institutions made minority governments feasible, an SPD-Green coalition supported on confidence matters by Linke would be a possibility.
But with both minority governments and a broad left government largely out of the question, what will happen if neither the CDU-FDP not the SPD-Green coalition lacks a majority? This is where the Grand Coalition comes in. And, as the Christian Science Monitor put it:
Nothing would please the Left more.
Fundamentally, the Left Party is offering a radically different answer to the question of how Germany should reform its lethargic economy to remain competitive and grow jobs. Until now, the major parties have been telling Germans that cuts to the country’s bloated social welfare system, tax reform, and a more flexible labor market are crucial to reviving the “sick man of Europe.”
The Left Party, on the other hand, invokes terms like “social economic justice”
In fact, its main appeal is as a protest vote. It is even probably taking voters from the neofascist National Democratic Party, which won’t cross the 5% threshold, but did manage to gain a lot of publicity with its 9% of the vote last fall in state elections in Saxony, which includes Dresdenâ€”a city of obvious symbolic importance to neo-Nazis.
One of the risks of a Grand Coalition is that it is exactly such extremists of both left and right that would be strengthened by it. With both major parties in government, whom would voters hold accountable at the next election if economic conditions don’t improve in the meantime? Both major parties.
No one really wants a Grand Coalitionâ€”at least no one but the extremesâ€”but with the close battle between the major parties, the emergence of the Linke, and German constitutional provisions requiring a majority government, there may be no other choice.