Why we should stop calling the possible next government of Germany a “grand coalition”

A likely outcome of this month’s German election is a coalition of the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD). This is a formulation that has occurred twice before, most recently 2005-09, and is known as a “grand coalition”.

What is a grand coalition, and why should a CDU/CSU+SPD government this time not be called one?

As I understand the term, a grand coalition should be close to a coalition of the whole. Literally, it should mean parties representing all sectors of the society sharing power. A more relaxed definition that seems to fit the way it is typically used is: a coalition consisting of the two leading parties in a country that normally oppose one another. (This is how I tend to use it.)

When West Germany’s first grand coalition formed in 1966, there were only three political forces represented in the Bundestag, the German first chamber of parliament. ((I will consider the CDU and CSU one “political force” even though they are actually distinct parties. They do not compete against one another–the CSU represents Christian Democracy in the state of Bavaria, and the CDU in the rest of the country.)) Following the 1965 election, CDU/CSU had 245 seats out of 496, and initially formed a coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP), which had 49, for a total of 59.2% of the seats. That was a classic “minimum winning” coalition of the largest bloc with the third largest. A coalition of the SPD (202) with the FDP also would have been a minimal winning coalition, although barely over 50% of the seats. After policy disagreements, the Free Democrats left the government and the Christian Democrats brought in the Social Democrats to replace them until the 1969 election. ((This election brought to power the aforementioned alternative coalition of SPD and FDP for the first time.))

The 1966 coalition of the CDU/CSU and SPD had 90.1% of the seats in the Bundestag. It was thereby almost “grand” in the first sense (coalition of the whole). Moreover, because these two political forces had not previously governed jointly, because a coalition of the two had not been seen as likely before the most recent election, and because either of them had the theoretical possibility of leading a coalition without the other, it was certainly grand in the second sense (two parties that normally lead alternative government formations instead governing together).

When the second German grand coalition formed in 2005, it was again not a generally expected result. There were, by this point, more parties in parliament than the simple three-forces set-up of the 1960s. The SPD, although it had governed with the FDP in the past, was now most likely to govern in coalition with the Green Party. In fact, this was the incumbent government at the time of the 2005 election, and had been since 1998. The main alternative was, of course, CDU/CSU+FDP. That the formation of the coalition was not expected is revealed by a remark from the SPD leader to the media at the time:

None of us was prepared for a grand coalition — none of you either. We learned to make compromises.

The reason that such a compromise proved necessary was that neither of the expected alternative governments had a won majority. The CDU/CSU (226 sets) and FDP (61) together had 287 seats. The SPD (222) and Greens (51) had 273. A majority in the much larger post-unification Bundestag was 307. Thus either one of the two blocs needed a third partner–such as CDU/CSU+FDP adding the Greens, or the SPD+Greens adding either the FDP or the Left Party (Linke)–or the two big forces needed to join up. They chose the latter course.

The 2005 grand coalition was much less grand than the 1966 one in the first sense. With 448 of 614 seats, it held 73% of the Bundestag. While that is much father short of being a coalition of the whole than the 90% of the 1966 occasion, we could still perhaps define having more than two thirds of the seats as “grand” enough. Further, as already noted, neither big party had other good options, as the preferred government formula of each main party was simply not possible. The idea of bringing in a smaller party from the opposite bloc, or the SPD governing with the far left, was not attractive. Does the 2005 bargain still meet the second criterion? Technically, yes: the heads of the alternative blocs governing together instead of one in and the other out. But the absence of a real alternative for either to govern without the other would make it a bit less grand in this sense as well. That is, it was not done as an alternative to feasible options, but because there were no feasible options.

Now, let’s consider the 2013 likely outcome. First, it is worth noting that the 2005-09 “grand” coalition was seen as temporary, even by its members. The two partners in government campaigned against each other in 2009, each clearly signaling a preference for leading a government without the other. The wish was granted, with the election producing a clear majority for the CDU/CSU+FDP combination. This is the incumbent government now, as Germany prepares for its vote.

Going by polling trends, the CDU/CSU may have only around 40% of the votes. The FDP is barely over the 5% threshold. ((An irritation of the graph at the linked item is that it shows lines marking every 10% of the vote, but not one at 5%, despite this being critical to whether a party wins any representation or not. One should not have to mentally scale the gap between 0 and 10 to decide whether a party is really over the threshold or not. But to my eyes, the FDP has flatlined at 6-7% in recent months. It looks safe unless there is a surprise.)) These two quite likely will be short of 50% of the party vote, although if there are a lot of wasted below-threshold votes (Pirates, etc.), it could be possible for a majority of seats to be won on not much more than 45% of votes. ((As long as the wasted votes below the threshold do not include those for the FDP!)) In 2009, disproportionality was higher than usual for Germany, partly due to below-threshold wasted votes and partly due “overhangs”; the latter should not be a factor this time, however, due to electoral-system changes. Thus it should be a close call whether the incumbent CDU-CSU+FDP coalition can be retained.

Given polling trends, there is simply no chance for any alternative majority government without the CDU/CSU. The SPD is looking at less than 25%. The Greens are in 12-15% range. That does not add up to a majority and may not be more than the CDU/CSU itself. Nor would these two parties plus the FDP appear to combine for more than the CDU/CSU+FDP combine, even in the unlikely event that the FDP would consider ditching its current partner and hooking up with the SPD and Greens. ((And the perhaps equally unlikely possibility that the Greens or SPD would welcome governing with the FDP.)). A coalition of the SPD, Greens, and Left still remains very unlikely–and even it may not make 50% of the combined vote, though it might manage a combined majority of seats. (Such a coalition would remain very unlikely even if the SPD shocked us all and won more votes than the CDU/CSU.)

Now, add to these factors the observation that it is very, very rare in parliamentary systems for a party with around 40% of the votes, when the largest opposition party is around fifteen or more percentage points behind it, not to lead the government. Only if there has been a joint campaign by other parties to present themselves as an alternative is there a conceivable chance of supplanting such a dominant party. There has been no such effort at a joint campaign of the various leftist parties. Moreover, it is worth noting that 40% would be a substantial improvement over what the CDU/CSU obtained in 2009.

Thus the only question heading into this election really is which smaller party Chancellor Merkel will take into government as a partner to her CDU/CSU. She may not have any choice but to take the SPD, which would be quite unlikely to refuse. This would be a coalition consisting probably of under two-thirds of the seats–a large majority, but a less than grand one. There would have been no chance whatsoever of the junior partner, the SPD, leading an alternative government. ((Again, assuming the FDP barely gets above 5%, and the combination with the CDU/CSU does not win a majority of seats. Of course, that could still happen, in which case the rest is moot!)) And make no mistake about it, the SPD would be the junior partner this time. It would have only around five eighths the seats of the larger partner. ((In 2005 and 1966, the SPD was actually larger than the CDU, though not larger than the CDU/CSU combined. However, in 2005, even the CDU/CSU together had only four more seats than the SPD had.))

Given the emerging shape of the German party system, it is time to retire the notion of “grand coalition”. This seriously overplays the role of the SPD, as well as the size of the majority the two leading forces can command jointly.

To summarize…


    • Nearly a coalition of the whole? YES (over 90%).


    • Coalitions led by either CDU/CSU or SPD without the other possible? YES


    • Two big forces about evenly matched? YES (196 vs. 245)

Nearly a coalition of the whole? SORT OF (over 70%).
Coalitions led by either CDU/CSU or SPD without the other possible? NO (without a cross-bloc or extreme partner).
Two big forces about evenly matched? YES (222 vs. 226).

Nearly a coalition of the whole? NO (likely under two thirds).
Coalitions led by either CDU/CSU or SPD without the other possible? NO (based on polling).
Two big forces about evenly matched? NO (SPD probably about five eighths the size of CDU/CSU).

It is time to stop thinking of CDU/CSU and SPD as partners in “grand” coalitions, and recognize that what Germany now has is a dominant center-right party, with one or two potential centrist partners. This puts a leader like Chancellor Merkel in a very strong position, with no risk of being denied by an alternative bloc (and certainly not by an “unpredictable” electoral system). She is as certain as can be of leading her country in a third term of office.

10 thoughts on “Why we should stop calling the possible next government of Germany a “grand coalition”

  1. Pingback: Outside the Beltway

  2. I can see why you challenge the notion of ‘grand coalition’. However, in terms of relative share, CDU/CSU and SPD together hold nearly 80% of the Bundestag seats now and coalitions led by either CDU/CSU or SPD without the other remain, at least numerically, possible, even if politically not very feasible. Another interesting facet of ‘grand coalition’ is that in German, it seems to primarily reflect the relative size of the coalition as compared to alternative coalition options, e.g. CDU/CSU+SPD as compared to CDU/CSU+Greens. The term ‘große Koalition’ thus does not seem to have a strong normative/qualitative character, compared to the English notion of ‘grand’ coalition.


  3. Indeed, ‘große Koalition’ translates literally as ‘large coalition’, and with almost 80% of seats, it certainly is…


  4. Interestingly enough, in Austria, which held a general election today, the coalition cabinet of the country’s two major parties, the Social Democrats and the People’s Party is still referred to as a “grand” coalition in Austrian news media sites (such as ORF.at and derStandard.at, to name two examples), even though 1) SPÖ and ÖVP now hold just under 51% of the vote between themselves (down from 55.2% five years ago); and 2) the third-placed Freedom Party (FPÖ) is once more within striking distance of both ruling parties, as detailed on my website’s Austria page.


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