One might think that the BBC would know the difference between the institutions of proportional representation (PR) and a parliamentary executive format. But one might be wrong.
On the Business Daily show on BBC World Service today, the host framed a program segment about Germany’s upcoming election around the following claim: Chancellor Angela Merkel (Christian Democrat) is vastly more popular than her main challenger, Peer Steinbrück of the Social Democrats. However, because of the electoral system she might not return as Chancellor.
For the record, if the most popular politician in the election does not emerge as head of the government after the election, it is because of the parliamentary system: Germany does not elect its leader directly. Its leader must have the consent of parliament (first chamber) to enter and remain in office. Just like Britain, one might note.
Later in the program, during an interview with two German election analysts, the host repeated a variant of this great threat to the popular Merkel emanating from the country’s electoral system, calling the system “unpredictable”.
If we redefined “electoral system” to mean “voters’ choices”, the host’s remark might have made some sense. He noted that many voters see less and less difference between the two big parties and are increasingly likely to vote for small parties, like the Greens. Indeed, even the popular Merkel is not going to lead her party to much more than 40% of the vote, assuming polls (which have been quite stable throughout the year) are accurate.
With only around 40% of the vote, the PR system will mean the Christian Democrats are short of a majority of seats–well short. The parliamentary system will mean she needs at least one partner. (One might point out to the BBC host: just like Britain; a minority government would also be possible but much less likely in Germany.) However, we can be fairly certain that the coalition will reflect how people actually voted. This is the value of PR. In fact, the highly predictable aspect of it. If 40% of voters have voted for Merkel’s party, and there is no conceivable alternative block of parties that has obtained a collective majority of votes, the government will be led by Merkel, in coalition with one of various smaller parties.
Despite the host’s best efforts to signal a looming crisis due to the German electoral system, both German guests calmly pointed out that Merkel was sure to return as Chancellor, most likely in the same coalition she has now–with the Free Democrats–or perhaps in coalition with Steinbrück’s Social Democrats. One of the guests said that the chance of the latter was increasing.
There actually is a good chance that the Christian and Free Democrats will be short of 50%. But that will be even less a crisis than when the same happened in 2005 (and that was not a crisis). In fact, given the new shape of German politics, with one party clearly dominant, it is time to stop calling the possible coalition of Christian and Social Democrats a “grand coalition”. But that is a theme for another planting.