Germany, multipartism, and “inconclusive” results: Would a grand coalition be so bad?

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the prospect of a grand coalition after Germany’s “inconclusive” election. There has even been some borderline alarmism from some of the “risk” analysts and words like “political chaos” from the business pages.

OK, can everyone just calm down a bit? A grand coalition is not such a bad thing. It reflects the probable consensus in Germany that something needs to be done, but nothing too drastic. It may be just what the country needs, and could even be what it wants.

I myself have expressed the view that a grand coalition is nobody’s first choice (and polls seem to back it up)–expect perhaps the extremes. However, there is one question on which I have not seen any polling (but then again, I do not read German, so I would be dependent on English-speaking sources having picked it up): What if a grand coalition is everyone’s second choice?

Some have made the comparison with Westminster-type systems, including rather implicitly, Chris Lawrence, who has a nifty headline from last night that reads, “There but for the grace of Duverger.” This is, of course, a reference to the famous Duverger’s law that says the first-past-the-post (plurality) electoral system leads to a two-party system, in contrast to proportional representation such as in Germany, which implies a multiparty system.

(Chris actually compares Germany to the USA, but the comparison is less relevant than to other parliamentary systems; presidentialism is an additional factor besides those Chris lists that explain why the USA is the world’s purest example of a two-party system, while Canada and the UK have multiparty systems despite FPTP.)

Suppose Germany had FPTP. The conventional wisdom is that such an electoral system would have delivered a more decisive result, allowing one or the other major party to win the majority of seats necessary to form a government on its own and push economic policy reforms through.

But decisiveness, in the German context, would come at a cost: consensus-building would be the first casualty. Given Germany’s recent reunification, it is beyond belief that there would not be a post-communist “spoiler” party under FPTP. It would win some seats—probably more than it did under the actual MMP system before this year, because in a 598-seat parliament with only single-seat districts, there would be more seats elected from its strongholds in the East. (The post-Communist left never before had crossed the 5% PR threshold when applied nationally in 1994, 1998, and 2002.) The existence of such a party in all probability would have still meant the breakaway of some elements of the SPD to join up with the left in digust with their own party pushing liberalizing reforms.

In other words, as far as the left-right divide is concerned, not a lot would be different about the party system, except for two significant things:

(1) One of these two large parties probably would have won a majority of seats; but that majority would have been based on around 40-45% of the vote; and

(2) The party most consistently in favor of the market reforms would not be in parliament. The FDP has seldom been able to win single-seat districts and has not won one since early in the history of postwar Germany. (Greens would be out of parliament, too.)

A majority party government might be more decisive, but there would be no societal consensus for the reforms it would push. The government would probably be CDU, as I doubt a divided SPD would have won an election under FPTP.

If there is no societal consensus, is it not better to have an “indecisive” government that reflects the indecisiveness of society at large? That’s democracy.

As for the hand-wringing and alarmism, it is misplaced. In fact, the whole notion of this political situation as “indecisive” is beside the point. If the result is SPD+CDU (and CSU) sharing power in a grand coalition, that is a government more favorable to Schroeder’s reforms than the incumbent SPD+Green coalition. At the same time, it would reflect the apparent consensus within Germany that the reforms advocated by the right–particularly by Merkel’s disastrous shadow finance minister, Professor Kirchhof–not be allowed to go too fast.

A grand coalition would probably last two or three years, and then there would be a new election. There could even be a new election much sooner—within a few months—though that’s not likely, in my view. Schroeder might see it as beneficial, given his late surge and momentum in the campaign, to hold out and try to force an early election. However, there would a real risk of a backlash against the party if it were seen as opportunistically forcing a second vote.

5 thoughts on “Germany, multipartism, and “inconclusive” results: Would a grand coalition be so bad?

  1. One notes that US state governments have had its share of “grand coalition governments,” or at least, legislatures, in Washington, Michigan, and New Jersey, among other places.

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  4. Pingback: Fruits and Votes » Blog Archive » Germany: Merkel’s first 100 days

  5. Pingback: Could proportional representation stop the popular Merkel? | Fruits and Votes

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