German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to form a government, but her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) does not have enough seats. She started negotiations with the leaders of three smaller parties, which broke down on Nov. 19.
Currently there is a lot of discussion about a possible resumption of a “grand coalition” — between Merkel’s center-right party and the center-left — among the CDU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). The SPD was initially resistant to the idea, but is now coming around.
Here’s what that means for German politics.
A grand coalition would have mixed consequences for Germany’s conservatives
A new grand coalition would have three benefits for Merkel and the CDU/CSU. First, it would allow Germany to emerge from its current political stalemate, which might start to hurt Merkel’s standing if it continues. Second, a grand coalition would be stable because the coalition partners would hold a 46-seat majority in Germany’s Bundestag (parliament). Third, since the last government was also a grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, there would be none of the tumult in terms of changing policy and personnel that happens when parties that have been out of power for a long time reenter government.
However, returning to the status quo is also risky for Merkel and her party. The CDU/CSU has been the most successful political grouping in postwar Germany. They have been the senior partner in government 70 percent of the time. They have been so successful because they did not allow significant political parties to emerge to their right, but that has changed. Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany to asylum seekers created a political opening on the right for the upstart far-right party, the Alternative for Germany.
Returning to a grand coalition with the SPD would risk widening the opening on the right. If Merkel wants to persuade the SPD leadership to re-up for a grand coalition, she will have to accept further concessions on asylum and other issues, which would leave her right flank vulnerable. Moreover, a grand coalition would mean the Alternative for Germany would become the official opposition party, since it would be the largest party not in government. This would contribute toward normalizing the far-right’s place in German politics.
Finally, another grand coalition government runs the risk of turning government stale. Long-serving governments typically run out of ideas and become increasingly out of touch. Merkel knows very well that dominant leaders can suddenly find themselves vulnerable when they overstay their era, since this is what allowed her to displace her predecessor, Helmut Kohl, in 1998.
By choosing to stay on — particularly without changing coalition partners to bring fresh blood into government — Merkel would risk falling victim to the same fate as her political mentor.
A grand coalition might have problems for German voters, too
Another grand coalition might seem to continue the policies which have helped the German economy succeed for the past couple of decades. Grand coalitions, however, reduce choice for voters, and choice is the defining feature of democracy. Constraining choice makes it easier for extreme parties on both ends of the political spectrum to get support. After all, they are the only ones offering alternatives to those dissatisfied with the status quo.
Germany is a case in point. The share of the vote going to extremist parties on the left and right doubled from 2 percent to 4 percent in the country’s 1969 election, which followed its first postwar grand coalition government. The share of fringe votes went up from 10 percent to 13 percent in the 2009 election after the second grand coalition, and from 15 percent to 20 percent after the third in the 2017 election.
The postwar history of Austria also illustrates the centrifugal consequences of grand coalitions. More than three decades of convergence politics between the Austrian Social Democratic Party and the center-right Austrian People’s Party in the immediate postwar years rendered Austrian politics immobile. Governments changed, but policies remained the same. Jörg Haider broke this duopoly in the 1980s by transforming the laissez-faire Austrian Freedom Party into a far-right party, which has been a perpetual challenger ever since. A Germany with a permanently strong far right and far left would perpetually have trouble forming governments and become a much less reliable partner within the European Union and for the United States.
The alternatives have their downsides
What, then, are the alternatives to a grand coalition? The most obvious is an alternative coalition. Merkel’s CDU, the CSU, the Greens and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) tried to form what Germans call a “Jamaica coalition.” (The name comes from the fact that the party colors of the participants — black, yellow and green — are those of the Jamaican flag.) Jamaica coalitions have governed German states, but it is much harder to reach an agreement at the federal level because ideological divisions are too wide.
Complicating matters further is the belief of the FDP leadership that they were burned by the CDU/CSU in their 2009-2013 coalition. The FDP accepted verbal assurances from the Christian party leaders on many issues and did not write them down in the formal coalition agreement. This time, the Free Democrats vowed to get everything in writing. Their attitude, which set the tone for the negotiations, made inherently difficult talks impossible. Ultimately, the negotiations collapsed when the FDP leadership declared an impasse and withdrew. It is unlikely that negotiations will resume.
A second is a fresh election. Merkel has hesitated to pursue this option because it risks increased voter fatigue, which might lower turnout further, and increase support for fringe parties.
The final possibility available is a minority government led by Merkel, either alone or in tandem with either the FDP or the Greens. There have been no minority governments in Germany since World War II because the German constitution discourages the proliferation of small parties. German politicians have shied away from the option, fearing the instability that doomed Germany’s ill-fated Weimar Republic.
Minority governments have a reputation for instability, but recent minority governments in Canada and Spain have been productive and stable. The German constitution could actually facilitate a stable minority government — so long as a majority could be cobbled together in the Bundestag at the outset to elect someone as chancellor — because it makes it hard to remove a chancellor. The German Bundestag can only oust a sitting chancellor with a “constructive vote of no confidence” that must include a positive majority vote for a prospective successor.
To be sure, a minority government would force Merkel to take a different approach toward policy and political coalitions. She would have to take up each issue item by item. But this could spark creativity and be more flexible than a fixed coalition. A minority government would also deprive the Alternative for Germany of the legitimacy of becoming the official opposition because the SPD would receive that designation, since it was the party that received the second highest vote total.
Stephen J. Silvia is a professor of international relations at American University.