Minority Government or New Elections?

Benjamin-Immanuel Hoff, Thüringen’s Minister for Culture, Federal and European Affairs speculates on where Germany goes next post-Jamaica breakdown. 

After almost eight weeks, the Liberals (FDP) have declared the exploratory talks about forming a government with the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the Greens a failure.  “It is better not to rule at all than to rule the wrong way” – this sentence by FDP chairman Christian Lindner might well find its way into the store of quotations of German politics. It is a phrase that – in all its silky-smoothness – is as appropriate as it is flawed.

Obviously, opposition can be more enlightening and even more important to the community than a government whose internal contradictions only foster disenchantment with established politics and whose formal compromises hamper important political decisions. The former PDS, today’s Left Party, once expressed this belief by coining the slogan “Everyone wants to rule – we want to create change.”

In recent years, the SPD had been willing to assume political responsibility – to the point of self-abandonment. To at least the same extent, the Social Democrats were convinced that by ruling they would gain in strength and become Merkel’s heir. Following the once again disastrous result at the federal election, the SPD made the – still legitimate – decision not to enter the federal government again.

The result of the federal elections was simply the expected end of the Grand Coalition. At the same time, the German Bundestag has become more diverse: for the first time since 1953, seven parties are represented. There is no majority for either Black-Green (a coalition between the Union and the Greens) or Black-Yellow (a coalition between the Union and the FDP). This makes the formation of a government more difficult for sure – albeit not impossible. After all, the Union, the FDP, and the Greens have already ruled in various combinations at the regional level together. The assertion that a Jamaica coalition is impossible due to societal contradictions is therefore ludicrous.

So why did Jamaica fail? The Jamaica negotiations did not fail on account of the allegedly incompatible societal contradictions, but primarily due to three circumstances:

1. The power struggle within the CSU. For the Christian Social Union (being a regional Bavarian party), federal politics are always a playing field derived from the interests in Munich. On the one hand, CSU chairman and Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer used the exploratory talks to fight for his political survival or at the very least his political heritage. On the other hand, the new generation was busy carrying out the Wars of the Diadochi, assuming that the CSU would come to the front with every new election post-Seehofer – and ideally post-Merkel. This is the only explanation for the arbitrary statement rendered by Thomas Kreuzer (CSU group chairman in the Bavarian state parliament) that the party would end up stronger in new elections.

2. The FDP’s fear of losing ground in a coalition with the Union and the Greens and being kicked out of the parliament again – just like in 2013. The exploratory talks had hardly begun when the FDP state chairman in Thuringia and now MP Thomas Kemmerich was quoted as saying: “Casually speaking – if you go to bed with this Chancellor, it will kill you.” The assumption that the electorate expects the FDP to provide opposition rather than the ability to stabilise a government may well be risky or even a mistake. It remains to be seen if the voters will appreciate the fact that Lindner and Kubicki forced their party to go down the tea party route rather than following the tradition of influential Liberals in Germany such as Dahrendorf, Gerhard Baum or Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

3. Relevant actors from all parties appreciate the failed Jamaica talks as an opportunity to usher in a post-Merkel era sooner rather than later. This serves two objectives: potential coalition partners hope to equalise coalition politics perceived as asymmetrical – mythologising Merkel either as the “Death Star” or “Black Widow” of her coalition partners.

Within the Union, it’s a matter of its future orientation – no more, no less. It is a party that is caught between a supposed “de-social democratisation of the CDU” and the safeguarding of its role as the supposedly last remaining people’s party. Its profile has become rather blurred and is therefore open. It is evident that the Union needs to clarify its strategy, starting with the Chancellor’s persona herself – which is the worst case scenario for Merkel and her most trusted advisor, Altmaier. Moreover, there is a risk not only within the Union itself, but for the party system per se – the risk that a “Kurz Model” as seen in Austria gains traction. It is this focus on individuals (such as the Forza Italia or the Macron movement) that subordinates the party organisation – as opposed to the systems of Kohl or Merkel – to a pernicious personality cult. This would be a fatal blow for democracy.

Given the three reasons mentioned above, Jamaica had to fail. Even after weeks and weeks of exploratory talks, the four parties were unable to reach a satisfactory solution offering a scope of action for the coming four years of common politics. The “breathing upper limit” would have been a final CSU nail in the coffin of green credibility and blue-white policy-making.

The Next Step: Third Round of Elections for a Minority Government

After weeks of the four negotiating parties holding the reins, it is now up to Federal President to act. The Chancellor cannot exercise the option to ask for a vote of confidence as the Federal Government – in line with Art. 69 of the German constitution (Grundgesetz, GG) – is only in office managerially. If Angela Merkel wants to continue to run the country, she needs to run for office in the Bundestag. Art. 63 GG requires an absolute majority in the first and second round of elections. If the absolute majority is not achieved in the first round, a second attempt can be undertaken within 14 days. If the quorum is not reached again, a third round is possible requiring only a simple majority.

If the Chancellor – against all odds – was elected with an absolute majority, the President would have to appoint her. With a simple majority he could either appoint her or dismiss Parliament. Frank-Walter Steinmeier clearly indicated in an interview last weekend that given the political situation he saw no need for new elections. This seems to suggest Ms Merkel’s will be appointed.

This would certainly depend on the likelihood of her election and a subsequent minority government between the Union and the Greens. Such an alliance would, however, lack 42 votes. According to Grunden, minority governments require certain basic conditions to be me in order to be able to act in a stable way (Grunden 2011: 3f.):

1) An opposition that is unable to reach an agreement: This condition has been met. The programmatic discrepancies between SPD, AfD, FDP, and the LINKE make an agreement on an alternative government majority impossible.

2) Policy centring on the party competition: This condition has also been met. After all, CDU and Greens might well be able to convince certain parties – the SPD and FDP – with compromises on factual issues and therefore generate majorities.

3) A strong cohesion of the government camp. This would require the CSU and the Greens to reach stable agreements as part of minority coalition negotiations. This is conceivable if the power struggle in Bavaria can be solved.

Berlin is not Weimar

The constitutional framework conditions of the Grundgesetz favour such a model. The stabilisers embedded into the constitution by the Parliamentary Council are the result of the experience of Weimar. Nevertheless, there is a proverbial German Angst of an unstable political situation, which can be explained by path dependency. Especially in the face of unsteady times internationally and a divided political landscape internally, relevant political actors as well as political analysts agree that such a form of government would make Merkel and Germany appear weak. Already on the evening of the federal elections, the Chancellor indicated: “I intend to achieve a stable government in Germany”.

One does not need to take this view. In fact, there are three reasons against it:

1. Berlin is not Weimar, even if the Berlin Republic has to face more turbulent times than the Bonn Republic. The party system has become more manifold, but multi-party coalitions are not necessarily less stable than classic two-party alliances – as has already been pointed out on this blog.

2. It might be precisely Merkel and her political staff who could succeed in freeing the concept of minority governments from the stigma of failure and the associations with the late Weimar Republic. Merkel has always aspired to achieve broad parliamentary majorities for significant decisions such as foreign missions of the German army, European affairs or even socio-political renewals. The presidential style of ruling has become her hallmark.

3. Following a first consideration of the situation after the failed exploratory talks as starting point to new political paths, former editor in chief of the daily newspaper “Neues Deutschland”, Tom Strohschneider, noted that “it is also about looking at the double divergence between political form and political contents – a) the political regulations that are limited to the nation-state do not fit with economic realities, as can be seen in the debates about Europe, inequality, taxation, or free trade; and b) while the political parties in this country used to be rather coherent, today the chasms within the parties are bigger than between them.”

Impact on SPD and LINKE

There is no window for the Centre-Left In such a constellation. The SPD would always be available as a partner, namely for the same reasons why it has ruled within a Grand Coalition: state-political responsibility and the hope to become the party that can again nominate the Chancellor. Domestically, it would replicate this via its representatives within the more manifold Ministerial Conference of the Federal States and also via the Federal Council (Bundesrat).

Strategically, given its dilemma with a party chairman who would no longer be an alternative in new elections and its pre-occupation with itself (which may or may not lead to the renewal hoped for by many of its members), at best it would have a clear organisational advantage in the opposition compared to the Linke and the FDP. A toleration of Black-Green cannot be expected from the FDP. This constellation would make it even harder for DIE LINKE to strategically and substantially stand up to the SPD and AfD. The statement by party chairman Bernd Riexinger “We are not afraid of new elections. We are prepared for all scenarios. But new elections only make sense if there is a clear alternative to Merkel. This is also an opportunity“.

This is therefore clearly put into perspective. At the same time, this would make it necessary for the Linke – and also offer the opportunity – to really clarify its own substantial and strategic issues, therefore contributing to the re-opening of a Red-Red-Green Window of Opportunity. This would be a real opportunity rather than fighting personal disputes in a blind alley which for the political situation and its own policy making standards is about as useful as shadow boxing.


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