German coalition possibilities

Now that we know the outcome ((Preliminary, but probably unlikely to change.)) of the election in Germany, and that the CDU/CSU is just five seats short of a majority, can anyone make a credible case for a coalition other than one consisting of the CDU/CSU with the SPD as a junior partner?

For various reasons, the Greens are unlikely to govern with the Christian Democrats. A broad left coalition seems far less likely. That would seem to leave only two other options: a CDU/CSU minority government, or a second election. And neither of those outcomes seems likely, either.

I guess it is a non-grand coalition of the two biggest blocs, more or less by default.

16 thoughts on “German coalition possibilities

  1. The democratic part of me thinks Merkel should be able to do basically whatever she wants as she and her allies received an actual majority of the votes.

    The parliamentary part of me wants the three left wing parties to form a coalition since they have a majority of the seats. And then hope they act like good democrats and reform the system in some way to prevent plurality reversals.

    Also, the post suggests a CDU/CSU minority government. Is that even possible in Germany? I thought a proposed chancellor could only take office with an absolute majority of the Bundestag voting to confirm her. Why would any of the other parties vote for Merkel without any of the benefits of coalition?

  2. A minority government would indeed require one of the other parties to vote for Merkel as Chancellor but decline cabinet posts. That is precisely why it is unlikely. However, I could imagine the SPD deciding that taking cabinet posts would be too politically costly for a party that might be better off rebuilding itself in opposition. In such a scenario they would vote for Merkel, saying that is “the voters’ verdict”, while knowing they can thwart policies of her government that they dislike in combination with the other parties. Note that I said I could “imagine” this, not that I expect it.

  3. To be clear, when one pre-electoral bloc (here CDU/CSU) wins a plurality of votes that the electoral system translates into a plurality of seats, there has not been a plurality reversal!

    I get the point that there was a majorityplurality of votes for the incumbent coalition, CDU/CSU + FDP, but that a feature of the electoral system–the threshold–prevented it from having a majority of seats.

    However, it is mistaken to speak of a left bloc having a majority, because while all the other parties that won seats are indeed to the “left” of the CDU/CSU, they are not a bloc. If they were, they could have foreseen the possibility of this outcome and at least hinted at potentially forming a government. They did not. In fact, quite the contrary. It is my understanding that various statements were made to deny that such a coalition could be formed. Presumably both the SPD and the Greens would actually lose votes to the CDU or CSU if they were perceived as cozying up to the Left.

  4. I just went to the relevant Wikipedia page to get the latest results. I would have gone to ARD, whose site is excellent, but it would have taken more clicks from their site, and what I last saw on ARD is consistent with what Wikipedia just showed.

    The Wikipedia indicates that the CDU/ CSU/ FDP combination received 46.3% of the party list, or second, vote. This is a decline of 2% from the last election. The combined constituency vote for the three parties is about a percentage higher.

    The SPD, Linke, and Grunen combined for just under 43% of the vote, down 2.6% from the last election.

    Anyway, these figures don’t match with some of the claims in the other comments. The government lost the election. The three governing parties did not get even close to a majority of the vote, and lost votes on both an absolute and percentage basis.

    The three left-wing parties lost more votes and are further from a majority. If you consider the various small populist parties that made up the balance on “the right”, the right won the election but the government lost the election.

    I have been wondering if single member plurality would have delivered more of what the electorate as a whole seems to have voted for, which would have been a CDU government more cognizant of populist and eurosceptical pressure. “First past the post” would have delivered a large CDU majority but after there result there presumably but these systems also feature more backbench revolts.

  5. I agree, Ed, that the government lost the election, given the rules (which are certainly well known and stable). The swing against it was not large, but it was large enough to deprive it of a Bundestag majority.

    I corrected my previous comment in which I mistakenly said that the CDU/CSU+FDP had a majority of votes. I meant to say plurality, and that is still valid. The incumbent parties collectively obtained more than any other party or bloc. But they lost because it is necessary for all parties in a multi-party bloc to clear the threshold, and enough voters defected from the FDP to prevent that from happening even as the CDU/CSU improved its share.

  6. Ed, under FPTP it’s quite likely the election outcome would have been distorted beyond recognition by tactical voting: in the former West Germany, the only two real players would have been CDU/CSU and SPD, leaving the smaller parties squeezed, except perhaps in Stuttgart I, where the Greens came in a fairly strong second place, but well behind CDU, with SPD running a distant third.

    Meanwhile, in the former GDR the Social Democrats would have been in a bind, running third – behind CDU and The Left – in all but eleven constituencies (out of 50), and the other parties would have had the same problems as in the old West Germany. Finally, in Berlin you’d have four parties in play: CDU, SPD, The Left and the Greens, with CDU ahead in most of the old West Berlin, The Left in East Berlin, and the Greens in their Berlin-Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg – Prenzlauer Berg Ost stronghold.

    That said, there would be no concerns about overhang seats, negative vote weight or Bundestag size inflation (an e-mail exchange with a German elections expert promptly brought up issues with an alternative I had outlined on this blog concerning the latter issue; more on that later). Simply put, the outcome would be as disproportional as they come. However, I can’t see Germany switching to FPTP any more than I can see U.S. states switching back to having state legislatures (instead of voters) choose presidential electors.

    By the way, Germany’s Federal Returning Officer has constituency-level, preliminary results of Sunday’s vote available in CSV format.

  7. It was reported yesterday that SPD has now agreed to begin negotiations with the Union parties on forming a (grand?) coalition government, but that any agreement to that end will have to be approved by the party’s 472,000 members in a binding referendum…

    At any rate, a CDU/CSU-SPD coalition government appears to be by far the preferred choice of most German voters, according to opinion polls conducted by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen and infratest dimap.

    Interestingly, according to the Forschungsgruppe Wahlen poll results, had another Bundestag election taken place yesterday, the Union parties would have remained in a tie with the three left-wing parties, but the Euro-sceptic AfD would have reached the five percent threshold (and therefore hold the balance of power), while FDP would have continued its free-fall. Finally, the infratest dimap poll also indicates that if voters had to chose between keeping the five percent threshold or lowering it to three percent – the latter being the new threshold for European Parliament elections in Germany – an overwhelming majority would favor retaining the existing threshold.

  8. I’m surprised to find no discussion here of the 5% threshold. In the last election two parties of the right each got 4.8% or 4.7%, falling below the 5% threshold. The right got a majority of the votes, but the threshold gave the left an artifical majority, which they have failed to use due to divisions in the left. (And perhaps because it felt illegitimate.)

    If the SPD membership votes down the grand coalition (this could well happen), and the Greens do not reconsider (they already turned down a Green/Black coalition), Merkel would have to govern as a weak minority dependent on day-to-day agreements with either the Greens or the SPD (very unGerman) or more likely call fresh elections. Calling fresh elections will no doubt ignite a new campaign to lower their threshold to 4%, the level used in Austria, Sweden, Poland, Norway, and some other countries. Not 3%, which Germans find too low, but 4%, which many would now accept.

    Only the SPD benefitted from the 5% threshold. They probably need to make the grand coalition work. But this time, have a good dismount strategy.

    • I see this as a variant of the situation that occurred in France in 2002. Every electoral system will through up freak results (and since the affect the composition of the government) and this is a freak result.

      Actually if my analysis is correct, its in the interest of the CDU/ CSU to force a second election, which the government can do. In the “do-over” election, the CDU will probably suck up the votes of the two parties on the right that did not make the threshold, giving the CDU-CSU an outright Bundestag majority.

      The SPD leadership knows this and must know that this weakens their negotiating position. I suspect they are letting the negotiations drag on, while leaving Merkel in power in a minority government situation, as a sort of kabuki thing to placate internal critics of the coalition. If the SPD members actually vote down the coalition, their bluff is called and an early election will result. They also might be hoping the government loses support before even an early election.

      Die Linke will be on the opposition benches in any case and are probably indifferent to whether the result is a CDU-SPD coalition, or an early election returning a CDU-CSU majority. The situation with the Greens is more complicated since there are plausible scenarios that would put them in the government, or below the threshold and out of the Bundestag entirely.

      • Actually, the polls are showing AfD passing the threshold now, so I think it’s actually quite a bit more complicated for Merkel…

  9. In a second election, it would seem pretty likely that both the FDP and AfD would pass the threshold. And if the AfD did, you’d probably end up with… a CDU/CSU + SPD coalition.

    Wilf, note that the Chancellor in Germany must be formally elected by the Bundestag. So an issue-by-issue minority government is less likely viable. The SPD (or someone) would have to agree to elect her, but not take cabinet posts. Possible, but not likely something the SPD would want to vote for.

  10. Note that the comment of “left” and “right” loses some if its impact if there is a minor party on the left (Die Linke) the major party on the left will not form a coalition with, and a minor party on the right (AfD) the main party on the right will not form a coalition with, or least the major parties would prefer to go into coalition with each other than with other minor left and right parties.

    If the situation was the same as in France, and the SPD had no problems with forming a coalition with Die Linke and the Greens, then you would have a situation where the electoral system handed a victory to the left despite a majority of voters supporting right wing parties. However, in France the problems between the National Front and the main party on the right may have given away at least one legislative election to the Socialists and their allies.

  11. Correct. It is meaningless to speak of a block when the parties comprising the alleged block will not cooperate.

    The case of the left in 2002 in France is a clear coordination failure, because the parties in question intended to support Jospin on the second round, but failed to ensure that he got there in the first place. But it is not accurate to refer to a German “left” comprising the SPD, Greens, and Linke. It is not coordination failure that keeps them from forming a government. It is an unwillingness to cooperate.

  12. Actually, it was not so much unwillingness to cooperate (there have been SPD+Left coalitions at state levels), as a judgment that some voters in some states would recoil from the SPD if it hadn’t promised in the last election not to have a coalition with, or even allow itself to be supported by, the Left Party. Since the last election, the SPD has revised that conclusion, and came out of their very recent convention with a new policy of being open to a coalition with the Left Party (but only after a new election; they uphold their electoral commitments!) So an early election might result in a red-red-green coalition.

  13. Yes, sure. This can evolve, though I read the statement after the election as being more about assuring rank-and-file that the party leadership is open to future options other than coalitions with the conservatives than about any actual intentions at this point.

    There have been a few cases of Left-SPD coalitions at the state level, but it is my understanding that most have been in eastern states (maybe someone can provide a list?) and that they have not gone very well. Of course, trials at the state level might be seen as building a record to build on at the federal level, but at least as of the most recent federal election campaign, the public statements make pretty clear that the SPD ruled out a coalition with the Left, meaning there is not a meaningful bloc consisting of these parties, plus Greens. (I believe the Greens have also signaled an unwillingness to cooperate at the federal level with the Linke, at least for now.)

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