By Jan Eike SCHÖNFELDER
On September 24th, 2017, Germany’s national elections were held and brought about a historical composition of the parliamentary party system that has rendered the building of a coalition-government extremely complicated. After extensive negotiations to form a three-party coalition were abandoned on November 19th, German politics were in an unprecedented deadlock. The article attempts to explain the reasons behind this development and to illustrate the constitutional and political options as to how to proceed. Now, at the end of December, negotiations to form yet another grand coalition under chancellor Merkel have started, even though large parts of the SPD continue to strongly oppose this options. The future of German government stays uncertain.
More than two months after one of the most important political events that took place in Europe in 2017 – the German parliamentary elections on September 24th, 2017 – the negotiations to form a “Jamaica”-government have been aborted without result. How did the German political system get into this tricky situation and what is going to happen next?
Difficult Government Formation On The Horizon
Starting during the refugee influx to Europe and to Germany especially in 2015, the relatively new right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gained significant and permanent upsurge in opinion polls, so their entry to the German Bundestag in the next election seemed very likely. Additionally, the liberal party FDP slowly recovered and thus they, too, managed to stay above the 5%-threshold in polls steadily since the summer of 2016. The fact that the new German Bundestag would be made up of six parliamentary groups (CDU/CSU – called Union, SPD, Greens, Left, AfD, FDP) could thus be assumed at least one year before the elections.
The big question was the relative share of the vote that they would ultimately receive. Throughout the year of 2017, the parties’ percentages in polls shifted considerably. When Martin Schulz was announced as the SPD’s candidate for Chancellor, the party gained in strength for several consecutive weeks, even passing Merkel’s Union, making it the strongest party in April. After that, however, the Union became more popular again, reaching more than 40% in some polls in July. At most moments during this time, different government coalitions would have reached a parliamentary majority: old ones – like Union-FDP and, of course, the “grand coalition” of Union-SPD – as well as new ones that have been tested only on the level of the Bundesländer before – like SPD-FDP-Greens, SPD-Left-Greens, Union-Greens or finally the “Jamaica”-coalition of Union-FDP-Greens, which received its name by the colors of the three parties involved: black (Union), yellow (FDP) and green (Greens).
It wasn’t until this summer that opinion polls foreshadowed significant difficulties for the formation of a coalition government. At the end of July, most polls indicated that, in fact, only the continuation of the grand coalition and the “Jamaica”-coalition will possess a parliamentary majority. All coalitions with a theoretical parliamentary majority that involve the AfD are not realistic because all parties voiced their general reluctance to work together with the (populist) AfD. Equally unrealistic are coalitions of the Left with the Union or with the FDP, as they have fundamentally different views on a variety of topics. However, since Martin Schulz put on record that his party wouldn’t enter another grand coalition with Merkel’s Union, the stage was set for “Jamaica”-negotiations.
Surprising Results And Complicated Exploratory Talks
The results did bring about surprising changes in the electorate’s preferences: On the one hand, the two big and governing parties both lost in historical dimensions – the Union with their worst result since 1949 and SPD with their worst result ever. On the other hand, AfD, Greens and FDP were stronger than expected in the last polls. However, none of this changed the anticipated government-forming difficulties so that Merkel finally started exploratory talks with the Greens and the liberals.
It was clear from the very beginning that these talks would be very difficult ones, first because of the sheer number of different parties involved (four if we take into consideration the internal division of the Union into CDU and CSU), but just as much because of the tremendous policy differences between the parties. On top of that, each party had peculiar tactical positions: While the CDU were willing to concede far-reaching compromises to form a government and keep Merkel as chancellor, the more conservative Bavarian CSU kept a very strong stance on limiting immigration, having in mind the Bavarian elections in 2018 and the new right-wing concurrence of the AfD. Yet a different situation had the Greens who are traditionally split into a more conservative side that affirms practical Realpolitik and a left side that is more fundamental and radical. Especially in the important question of migration politics, their original standpoint was contrary to that of the CSU. Finally, the tactical position of the liberal FDP was crucial: They had just managed to re-enter the Bundestag after having not passed the 5%-threshold in the 2013 elections for the first time. Back then, they had considerably lost support because they hadn’t been able to effectively promote their own positions in the Union-FDP government from 2009 to 2013, with people claiming that the FDP was basically just doing what Merkel wanted. Coming from this disillusioning recent history, they were very skeptical of too many compromises in order to ensure that they would only govern with important parts of their own program being implemented.
After four weeks of intense exploratory talks to find out whether a common basis for a coalition can be found, the FDP finally cancelled the negotiations on November 19th. Apart from the still missing common positions on a variety of questions, they stopped the talks mostly for those tactical reasons mentioned above, saying that the other parties involved weren’t willing to take on enough of the important FDP issues, such as reforms in education and taxes, and further pointing out that even after many weeks and long-lasting discussions, the atmosphere of trust required to collaborate in the coming four years never developed.
Germany’s Politics In Unprecedented Deadlock – How To Proceed
Following this decision, German politics now finds itself in a sort of vacuum that has never occurred in the 68 years of the Federal Republic of Germany with no clear perspective as to how to proceed.
Three possibilities to continue the process of government building are theoretically possible: Firstly, another government coalition with a majority will be found. Secondly, one or two parties agree to form a (“tolerated”) minority government and find sufficient support from other parties to elect a chancellor with the majority of the members of the German Bundestag. The third possibility is that the German Bundestag doesn’t manage to elect a chancellor with the same majority. In that case, the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, can decide whether he appoints the person elected with the relative majority as chancellor or whether to declare new elections.
To determine how to proceed, Steinmeier talked to the leaders of all parties in the parliament, as well as to legal experts and called for the parties to rethink their positions and form a majority government, ruling that a minority government or new elections (option two and three) would be a threat to the stability of German and European politics. Nevertheless, as described above, the first possibility of forming a majority government seems very unlikely. In the first days of December, however, an increasing number of SPD-leaders have suggested to reconsider their rejection of another grand coalition. We can look forward to an interesting continuation of the unprecedented German struggle to form a government.
Finally, in my personal opinion, this entire situation has one big disadvantage and two big advantages: Steinmeier is right when he points to the missing stability in European and international politics because the German interim government is restraining itself to a minimum of commitments, not knowing what policy the next government will support. On the other hand, the already elected parliament is working without the typical government-majority vs. opposition-minority-logic, thereby redefining its independent strength and working with shifting majorities from bill to bill. Finally, in this new situation politicians, parties, the press and the citizens are forced to think out of the traditional structures and consider innovative forms of government, leading to a re-politicization in German society.
About the Author
Jan Eike SCHÖNFELDER is 22 years old and comes from Germany (near Hamburg). He studies International Relations and State Sciences at the University of Erfurt, Germany and has written his Bachelor’s thesis in the summer of 2017 about the “Development of the German Party System and the resulting problems for future government building”. He currently finishes his Bachelor’s with one semester at Sciences Po Lille, France. This is his first article.