Oscar Wilde once quipped that a second marriage is “a triumph of hope over experience.” After Germany’s main parties announced a new government last week, one wondered what Wilde might have said about a third marriage, especially if it came with a 177-page prenup.
After inconclusive national elections last September, the negotiating parties wrangled through months of deadlock before finally reached an agreement to form a new ruling coalition. The resulting government looks… a lot like the old one. Natürlich, Angela Merkel will be chancellor again—an office she has held since 2005. Even the idea of a “Grand Coalition”—a seemingly unlikely marriage of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with its long-time center-left rivals, the Social Democrats (SPD)—is hardly as remarkable as it must have once been to earn that name. After, all it is the same coalition that governed Germany from 2005 to 2009 and again from 2013 through the present. It is the same coalition that Germany’s voters had evidently tired of, driving the vote share of both parties down to historic lows in the 2017 election. And it is the same coalition that the SPD’s leader, Martin Schultz, repeatedly vowed—both before and after the election—that the party would not rejoin.
Like many couples in a rocky relationship, the CDU and SPD were ready to call it quits. They went through a sort of trial separation. They played around with the alternatives. They went through counseling. Finally, they ended up, somewhat uneasily, back under the same roof. So what happened? How did Merkel coax her erstwhile partners and rivals back into a cohabitation they had so loudly tired of?
Most of the answers can be found in the ground rules of the German political system itself—a structure that practically requires coalition government. But hard historical experience also plays a role. Determined to avoid the mistakes of the past, Germany’s main political parties are willing to compromise with each other rather than legitimatize extreme parties on their own ideological flanks.
German Engineering: The Ultimate Governing Machine?
The messy coalition talks should not obscure the strengths of the Federal Republic’s political system. First, it is almost perfectly representative. Most English-speaking countries (notably the US, Britain, and Canada) use the “first-past-the-post” system to elect their parliaments. This does not guarantee fair results, as voters who select losing candidates essentially get no representation. It is a particular problem in a multi-party system, as the winning candidate in any district may receive far less than a majority of votes cast. When compounded across a nation, such results often hand large parliamentary majorities to parties supported by a minority of the public, sometimes less than 40%. This system also leads to tinkering with district boundaries to influence electoral results, a particular problem in the US, which gave the world a word for it (“gerrymandering”) all the way back in 1812.
Outside of the Anglo-Saxon world, democratic countries pay a lot more attention to this problem. France, for example, uses a two-round voting system for both presidential and parliamentary elections, with multiple parties contending in the first round, and a run-off between the top two finishers in the second round. This ensures that each winner will ultimately receive at least 50% of the vote—and the legitimacy that this entails. But the French system can still lead to lopsided results on the macro level.
Germany avoids these problems. Seats in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, are awarded through a “mixed-member” electoral system. Each voter casts two votes: the first for an individual candidate in their own district, the second for a party list of candidates in their “Land” (similar to a US state). Half of the seats are allocated to the first-past-the-post winners in each district. This preserves the connection between candidates and local constituents that is absent in many pure proportional-representation systems.
The second vote, for the party list, is what matters most for the composition of the Bundestag. The remaining 50% of the seats in the Bundestag are allocated to various parties based on their total percentage of the party-list vote. The mathematical formula is complex, but the end result is that the overall composition of the Bundestag will closely mirror each party’s share of national support. So a party getting 35% of the national vote should expect to get at least 35% of the seats in the Bundestag—no matter how its voters are distributed geographically, no matter how district lines are drawn, no matter how many individual seats it manages to win a plurality in. So voters can generally vote their conscience—for candidates they actually like and parties they truly support—without worrying about accidentally handing power to the greater of two evils. Theoretically, no vote is wasted.
There is one important exception to this principle, however. To get any representation from the party list, a party must achieve at least a 5% share of the national vote. This feature was added after the failure of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first attempt at democracy, in the 1920s. Weimar’s system of proportional representation led to the proliferation of very small parties. This complicated the formation of governing coalitions and led to chronic instability, both of which were exploited by the Nazis and other opponents of democracy.
Accordingly, a voter in modern Germany must make one practical calculation in casting the second vote: will my chosen party reach the 5% threshold? If not, the vote is wasted, and the larger parties will reap the benefit in the form of a slightly higher seat count.
Fight for Your Right to Partei
Due to the threshold, the German system can only support a finite number of national parties. The theoretical maximum would be 20 (each earning 5% of the vote), but in practice the number is much lower. Since the formation of the Federal Republic in 1949, its politics have been dominated by two large formations. The CDU (together with a Bavarian sister party, the CSU) has usually been the largest bloc, representing the loose center-right ideology of “Christian Democracy”: support of traditional values and market economics, coupled with acceptance of pluralism, democratic institutions, and the welfare state. The CDU bloc usually commands about 35-50% of the national vote.
The Social Democrats similarly represent the center-left tradition: pro-labor, internationalist, and multicultural, but decidedly democratic and gradualist in its tactics. The SPD traditionally garners 30-45% of the national vote and sometimes surpasses the CDU as the top party.
Several parties vie to be the third force in German politics. Traditionally, this role was filled by the Free Democrats, a centrist party with a pro-market, slightly libertarian bent. Somewhat flexible in their program, the Free Democrats are a natural coalition partner for either the CDU and SPD. As a result, they have enjoyed plum cabinet jobs—including Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s epic run as foreign minister from 1974 to 1992. A party like the Free Democrats has often served as a balancing force. Even if the CDU or SPD gained the upper hand in an election, the need to make a deal with the Free Democrats would prevent policy from lurching too abruptly to the left or the right. The price of such deal-making is often felt at election time, however. The Free Democrats typically receive 8-15% support, but when in power they can take the blame for unpopular policies, lending suspense to the question of whether they will make it into the Bundestag at all.
By contrast, the Green Party began as a somewhat radical force in German politics in the 1980s. Emphasizing the environment, along with peace and disarmament issues, the Greens ran strongly to the left of the SPD. Even as the party regularly garnered 5-11% of the vote, it was seen as too radical (or principled) to participate in the sausage-making of coalition government. With the end of the Cold War, however, the Green Party’s foreign policy stance no longer disqualified it from government. At the same time, environmental concerns became more mainstream. The Greens joined an SPD-led government in 1998 and have been considered potential coalition partners ever since.
With the absorption of East Germany in 1990, the Federal Republic also acquired the remnants of its Communist Party. Rebranded as the “Party of Democratic Socialism” (PDS) and later as the “Linkspartei” (The Left Party), this formation replaced the Greens as the “untouchable” party on the left. To avoid alarming centrist voters, the SPD has always ruled out forming a federal coalition with the PDS/Linkspartei, although they have since done so on a state and local level. The Linkspartei has made the best of its outsider status, eventually gathering those elements of the left for whom the SPD and Greens aren’t left enough. But they have never done better than 4 to 8% of the vote.
Since the destruction of Hitler’s regime in 1945, no party to the right of the CDU/CSU has entered the Bundestag. While the National Socialist Party and all Nazi symbols are banned, there is still a lot of ideological bandwidth available on the right edge of the spectrum. The latest party to seek a slice of that action is the right-wing, Euroskeptic, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD). Founded in 2012 in response to the Eurozone monetary crisis, AfD won 4.7% of the vote in 2013, narrowly missing the threshold for proportional seats in the Bundestag.
In its original incarnation, AfD was outside the mainstream of Germany’s pro-EU consensus, but by most measures was not an extremist party. After Chancellor Merkel’s 2015-16 decision to admit more than a million Syrian refugees, however, the AfD took hard turn toward the extreme right. Focusing less of its hostility on the Euro and more on immigrants and Muslims, AfD began to rise in the polls.
Xenophobic parties are disturbing anywhere, but the emergence of a party like AfD in Germany raised alarm bells. Would Germany’s conservatives allow history repeat to itself, by embracing an extreme right-wing party as a coalition partner, only to watch it devour them once in power? Not if Angela Merkel could help it.
The Physicist Who Came in From the Cold War
When Angela Merkel was elected chancellor in 2005, it was hard to tell which aspect of her story was more notable: that she was the first woman to lead modern Germany, or that she was from the former East Germany. The communist state was hardly known as a training ground for democratic politicians. Many of those who grew up in East Germany have struggled to adapt to the “Western” way of life that suddenly engulfed them with the reunification of Germany in 1990. Not Angela Merkel.
Perhaps it helped that Ms. Merkel avoided any serious entanglement with the former communist regime, making her living as a physicist. She came to politics relatively late in life, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She became a protégé of then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who had engineered reunification and was eager to build up the CDU in the newly absorbed eastern Länder. After Kohl fell from power due to a scandal, Merkel bested several better known rivals to succeed him as leader of the CDU.
Somewhat underestimated at first, Merkel barely eked out a win over the SPD in 2005, and took office under a “Grand Coalition” that divided power fairly evenly between the two parties. But Chancellor Merkel proved to be an adroit politician, outmaneuvering the SPD and securing re-election in 2009 and 2013. From the German public, she earned the nickname “Mutti” (Mom), accorded with some blend of respect, affection, and (perhaps) nostalgic chauvinism. Her growing stature on the world stage stemmed from her management of Germany’s economy, which continued to outpace the rest of Europe, and the resulting clout she wielded during the Great Recession and the Eurozone crisis that followed. But it was also a reflection of her ability to take on tough issues, master details, negotiate doggedly—and sometimes take a bold stand.
When Greece teetered on the edge of default and the entire Eurozone braced itself for shockwaves., Germany’s financial might was the only way to resolve the crisis. Merkel drove a hard bargain, insisting on harsh austerity programs in return for loans and aid. She showed a great deal more compassion when opening Germany’s gates to Syrian refugees. The decision, while morally admirable, rankled many of Germany’s neighbors—and many Germans as well. To her critics, Merkel insisted that wir shaffen das (“we can do this”). The question of whether she could do this—and still remain popular enough to hold on to power—loomed over last September’s election, as did the angry, disillusioned mood that supposedly powered the Brexit vote, Donald Trump’s rise, and other recent political tempests.
Winning by Losing, and Losing by Winning
In the 2013 election, Merkel’s then-coalition partner, the Free Democrats, failed to meet the 5% threshold. Forced to find a new parliamentary majority, Merkel forged another Grand Coalition, this time with the SPD clearly as a junior partner. The disadvantage of this arrangement—getting stuck with responsibility for the government’s unpopular decisions—became clear to the SPD, which vowed to move back into opposition after the 2017 vote.
The SPD’s gambit didn’t sell well with voters. Polls showed the CDU with a solid lead, while the SPD fell far behind. Merkel was expected to win a fourth term easily. And with the US and UK in political turmoil, and France lagging economically, the solidly dependable Merkel was already being heralded as the “Leader of the Free World.”
So the results of the September 2017 vote were something of a shock. Not a Trump/Brexit level shock, but a surprise nonetheless. The CDU/CSU share of the vote dropped from 41.5% in 2013 all the way to 32.9% in 2017. The SPD fared no better, falling from 26.0% to 20.5% over the same period.
The Free Democrats benefited from being out of power, rising from 4.8% to 10.7% and getting back into the Bundestag. The Left Party and Greens made small gains as well to 9.2% and 8.9%, respectively. But most attention focused on the AfD, which went from 4.7% to 12.6% and won its first-ever seats in the Bundestag.
The result was an obvious disappointment for Merkel. But it still left the CDU as by far the largest party, and Merkel the only plausible chancellor who could weld together a majority in the Bundestag. The question remained whether any majority was possible—or if voters would have to go back to the polls.
In many countries, the logical step for Merkel would have been to build a coalition with the parties the CDU’s flanks—the Free Democrats to the center, and the AfD to the right. But while the Free Democrats were acceptable coalition partners, the AfD was not.
Merkel felt obligated to isolate and contain the xenophobic AfD, rather than give it the legitimacy of participation in government. In so doing, she showed an understanding of history. In the later days of the Weimar Republic, the traditional conservative parties were unable to form a parliamentary majority themselves. They turned to Hitler’s Nazi Party as a coalition partner, confident that they could “manage” and “tame” him, while using his party’s votes to promote conservative policies. Once in power, however, the Nazi leader turned out to be anything but manageable.
Democratic parties must stand together—even with their normal opponents—to defend democracy, rather than let their pursuit of power risk bringing the enemies of democracy to power. In Germany, this lesson has been learned well. (In other countries, we are learning it now.)
Aside from these sound historical considerations, Merkel had other reasons to exclude the AfD from power: the price of bringing them into a coalition would, at the very least, mean reversing her Syrian asylum policies and scaling back her commitment to European integration.
But with the AfD verboten, and with the Left Party ruled out for similar ideological and historical reasons, Merkel was left with few options. Burned at the polls for failing to keep enough distance from Merkel, the SPD refused to consider a new Grand Coalition. So the chancellor tried to forge a deal with the Free Democrats and the Greens. The result would have been a “Jamaica” coalition, the colorful term being derived from the black-yellow-green branding of the three parties.
The talks dragged on for months, but in the end there would be no Cool Runnings for Angela Merkel. The parties were unable to perform the ideological gymnastics necessary to agree upon a program.
That left only one option: another Grand Coalition. Germany’s president asked the SPD to reconsider its refusal to enter talks, finally breaking down Schulz’s resistance. Still, the SPD played hard to get. Merkel felt the obligation to provide stability and needed a deal to stay in power, while the SPD probably would have been content to rebuild itself in opposition. The result was several more months of maneuvering, posturing, and negotiation before last week’s 177-page coalition agreement was finally announced.
Rivals Without a Cause
The price of reconciliation for Merkel was steep. The SPD, despite having far fewer seats in the Bundestag than the CDU/CSU bloc, won significant policy concessions, even when compared to the already moderate policies of the previous Grand Coalition. Merkel agreed to boost social spending and to give the SPD a bigger role in determining policies on Europe.
As important as politics was personnel. The SPD will receive six cabinet posts. As expected, the SPD retained control of the Foreign Ministry. But it also picked up the Finance Ministry, previously a CDU stronghold. With these two high-profile jobs slipping out of their grasp, many CDU members wondered “who won the election?” and quipped that at least the SPD allowed Merkel to keep the chancellorship. Party bigwigs have begun to mumble about a post-Merkel future, although no change in her position seems imminent.
So far, the coalition agreement is not going down well with the rank-and-file of the SPD, either. The party’s 440,000 members must vote to approve the deal by March 2, or its leaders will have to call the whole thing off. In that case, Merkel has vowed to go it alone by forming a minority government. This would be a first for post-war Germany, although there were plenty of unhappy precedents in the Weimar era.
The Promise and Perils of Compromise
If the Grand Coalition holds, and even if this term turns out to be her last, Angela Merkel will continue to wield enormous clout domestically, in Europe, and in the world. Germany will remain in the driver’s seat in the European Union. It will increasingly stand out as a model of successful governance in a world where many other important democracies are struggling. The German electoral system guarantees a parliament that accurately reflects the political spectrum. The coalition deal shows that Germany’s two main parties share a determination to make their government work. They have enough common ground to manage their differences. And they are maintaining the “guardrails of democracy” by keeping extremism on the margins.
At the same time, the coalition deal holds significant dangers. As recently as the 2013 election, the CDU and SPD combined represented 79% of the seats in the Bundestag. Now, they collectively hold only 56% of the seats. Both parties are losing voter support. The Coalition no longer looks so grand. Locked in an uneasy embrace with each other, they no longer present clear alternatives to the public. Designed to keep the extremes of left and right at bay, the new coalition could end up weakening the center. If voters begin to feel that the government stays the same no matter whom they chose, it is a recipe for trouble in the long run.
But those are concerns for another day. The present moment calls for optimism. It has been observed that a successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person. Angela Merkel and the SPD have an opportunity to show that this is true of parties as well.