Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Somewhat Less Euphoric Assessment of the German Election Outcome

The issue of the German election has occupied the Eurozone debate in Greece and elsewhere for over a year. Since Sunday evening, Chancellor Merkel is the new Superwoman! A resounding electoral victory and all might in her hands going forward. Is that really so?

In a representative multi-party parliamentary democracy, the ultimate winner is not necessarily the one who gets the most votes but, instead, the one who can form a coalition government. Most of the times, both are the same but they do not always have to be. Germany as well as Austria had periods in their recent history where not the number 1 party headed the coalition but where, instead, number 2 & 3 formed the government with the number 1 party watching on in a miserable mood (in Germany, SPD/FDP had governned when CDU/CSU were the largest party; in Austria, ÖVP/FPÖ governed while SPÖ was the largest party).

Pitfalls of Representative Democracy
The parliament is supposed to reflect the preferences of the voters. In Germany, there was a clear shift on the part of the voters to Center-Right: CDU/CSU, FDP and AfD - definitely parties of Center-Right - received 51,0% of the vote compared with 42,7% for SPD, Grüne and Linke, leaving 6,3% in the category of "Other". Some of those "Other" can probably be assigned to the Center-Right so that the total for the Center-Right was definitely in excess of 51%. After the last election, the Center-Right had been a minority among German voters.

And what happened in parliament, the Bundestag?

Votes only make it to representation in the Bundestag if they are for parties which garner at least 5% of the vote. FDP and AfD did not make the 5% cut so the combined 9,5% of votes which they received are not represented in the Bundestag. To put it bluntly: those 9,5% of votes became worthless, just like the "Other" 6,3% of votes which are not represented in the Bundestag. 7 million voters (over 15% of the total) do not find themselves represented in the Bundestag!

The Bundestag now has 630 seats. Merkel is the big winner? No! She only commands 311 of those seats, or 49%. Parties which have so far opposed Merkel (SPD, Grüne and Linke) hold an absolute majority of 51% (319 seats) in the Bundestag. For Merkel to form a government, she has to persuade a previously fierce opponent to join her. In contrast, for the Center-Left to form a government, they only have to agree among themselves!

Voters shifted to Center-Right in terms of votes whereas power in the Bundestag shifted to Center-Left. That could trigger some interesting discussions about the German electoral system going forward.

All 3 opposition parties (SPD, Grüne and Left) have for the last 4 years forcefully opposed many of Merkel's policies. The single most important message of these Center-Left parties during the election campaign was that the Merkel-lead government needed to be replaced. They could replace the Merkel-government tomorrow if they could only unite. However, unision is not always a characteristic of the Center-Left: SPD and Grüne not only oppose Merkel but they also oppose the Linke. And without the Linke, the Center-Left has no majority.

So here is now the German version of Catch-22: in order for the allegedly most powerful woman in the world to form a government, one of her opponents must make a sudden switch and agree to work with her. This is almost like expecting the American Tea Party to come out in support of Obamacare, and all of this because of the 'national interest'.

The majority of Germans would undoubtedly support a Grand Coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD. From a national perspective, that would make eminent sense. Such a government would command 503 (80%) out of the 630 seats in the Bundestag, the kind of solid majority which should stand behind the very difficult decisions which the next German government will have to take.

However, the 192 SPD members of the Bundestag will not see it that way. They know better than anyone else that the loving embrace of Angela Merkel will not be good for their political health. It is highly unlikely that the SPD could really leave its handwriting on the wall as the junior partner in a Grand Coalition. They have been through that experience once before with the CDU/CSU: Merkel easily took credit for everything which the SPD did well.

The SPD has a choice between pest and cholera: they can forget their opposition to Merkel out of a sense of responsibility for the nation. After all, Germany needs to be governed. Or, they can stick to their guns and refuse to be lured into a Grand Coalition. That would undoubtly lead to new elections and those would undoubtedly lead to an absolute majority of the CDU/CSU (and much blame for the SPD of having forced upon Germany an unnecessary election).

There is, however, one scenario which is highly unlikely but it cannot be ruled out entirely. As the mating game between CDU/CSU and SPD goes on for weeks and months without any progress, the SPD will come under enormous pressure to do something which it does not want to do. And the Linke may start whispering into the SPDs ears something like "Do you really want to prostitute your principles on the alter of 'national responsibility'. You can fulfil your national responsibility by forming a solid government of the Center-Left if the two us us learn to live with one another".

It is really up to the Linke whether or not Merkel can form a Grand Coalition government. They would have it in their power to 'seduce' the SPD by offering all sorts of sweeteners to them. SPD leaders have basically sworn not to work with the Linke but such oaths can be forgotten when 'Mutti' shows them every day who the boss is. Or, those leaders can be moved out and replaced by more open-minded souls. It is unlikely that the Linke, a rather divided bunch of politicians, could get their act together and agree on a strategy as above. If they could, however, there would be a chance that the next German government will be totally different from the one expected last Sunday night after the election results were announced.


  1. I fully agree with your analysis except for the paragraph comparing to the tea party. SPD and Green's will never accept a coalition including Die Linke. If they also block a coalition with Merkel new elections would most probably weaken their position.
    Therefore either SPD or the Green's will be the unloved next coalition partner. The only question will be, what candy they get from Merkel, and imho this will be rising taxes xD.

    H. Trickler

    1. The only trouble is that the 'candy' will turn out to be poison for those who accept it...

  2. The things you say about worthless votes is interesting. This is a breakdown of the UK election from 2010. This demonstrates a disparity from the votes to results (seats) that is truly disquieting.

    Seats Share

    Labour 47% 36%
    Conservtive 40% 29%
    Lib Dem 9% 23%

  3. You forgot to mention the possibility of a CDU/Gruene coalition... If there really will be weeks and months of difficult negotiation with SPD, it wouldnt surprise me if Merkel would go for black-green...

    1. In normal times, perhaps but these are times where the party has lost its identity and needs to find one. I mean, they have lost their entire leadership! One wouldn't even know who to negotiate a coalition agreement with. Ok, one would negotiate with the newly appointed leadership but how stable would that new leadership be in its place when the party itself is confused?

      I watched an interesting TV program Sunday evening where a Green mayor of Tübingen, apparently a very respected politician, honestly said that the Greens were not a party which could commit to anything these days. That was honest!

    2. ... these are times where the [Gruene] party has lost its identity and needs to find one. I mean, they have lost their entire leadership

      Something similar could be said of the FDP and the Pirates, and to some degree of the SPD. Seems to be endemic in today's Germany.

      Assuming the AfD took votes away from the FDP, that echoes the Nader taking votes from Gore.

      My suggestion would be preferential voting with a threshold of 5% of #1 votes to be eligible for receiving any preference votes. This would give all votes equal value, but prevent the proliferation of one man band parties conjuring up perverse preference swap deals.

      In Australia's recent election the Mining Magnate Billionaires Party** has won at least one lower house seat and 2 senate seats. I gave them my #1 vote on the basis that I knew how they funded their campaign - out of their own pockets rather than someone else's. I'm surprised at their success, given they only got started a few months ago.

      Assange's new party came nowhere. He recruited some unsavoury candidates and tried the preference swap game with other wing-nuts, a couple of weeks before the elections his best chance candidate spilled the beans and withdrew her nomination - but it was already too late for him to nominate another candidate.


      **The MMBP party is officially known as Palmer United, he's a billionaire miner who's building a replica of the Titanic - in China. He's no doubt supported by the much-unloved Gina Reinhardt.

  4. Are individually elected members of the Bundestag allow to retain their seats if they resign from the party of which they are a member, I would assume that list members would not be allowed to do so.

    If so then maybe all Mutti needs is a handful of individual members to resign from the SPD and promise supply and confidence and she will have a working majority - even if she doesn't have an absolute one.

    Or could the SPD offer confidence and supply but not enter into a formal coalition. Before he became Draghi's right hand man, Jorg Asmussen was Schauble's deputy - Asmussen is an SPD member, but the SPD were not in coalition with the CDU/CSU - so it seems that there are ways that deals can be done.


    1. You are referring to the possiblity of a minority government. In Austria and Germany, everyone is scared of minority governments. They are viewed as inherently unstable.

      Personally, I like the idea of minority governments. Yes, they are more instable but all they mean is that the government has to try hard and seek majorities on each decision. What's wrong with trying hard and seeking majorities in a democratic parliament? Oh, I know what's wrong with that. One would have to try hard and seek majorities all the time...