Since the turn of the century, Germany has spent more time under Grand Coalitions than without them. The comprise CDU/CSU and the Social Democrat Party, historically two of Germany's largest political forces. Though rare in the last century, Grand Coalitions are the outcome of the current political climate in Germany, where no one party has enough popular support to form a government by itself. Previously this led to strong, stable governments. However, with the rise of extremist politics in Germany and the AfD (a right-wing populist party) gaining its first seats in the Bundestag, the system must be reevaluated. In this article, Julian and Kai argue if the Grand Coalition system is the best Germany or whether the recent political trends spell doom for the Merkel coalition.
A German Grand Coalition stands to benefit both Germany itself and the rest of Europe, by maintain moderation at home and projecting stability abroad.
The last election left the German political climate, and Bundestag, more fractured than any other time since World War 2. The Union received a third of the vote, while only a fifth of voter supported the SPD, both parties’ worst showings since the end of the Nazi era. The drop in support for these two mainstays of the German political system led to a record six parties winning seats in the legislature; the number of legislators, meanwhile, swelled to 709, making it the second largest legislative chamber in the world . The AFD became the first far-right party to win election to the Bundestag since the Nazi Party; the descendant of the East German Communist Party, Die Linke, also gained seats. This confluence of factors and the two biggest parties ruling out forming a government with either the far-left or far-right parties meant a governing majority could only be formed from two coalitions: The Union leading a coalition with the center-right FDP and center-left Greens or leading a coalition with the SPD.
The FDP has expressly ruled out entering into the Government, leaving a Grand Coalition as the only option.If the German parties cannot form a government, an election must be called. Unfortunately, polls show that a new election would yield much the same result as the last one, providing no remedy . Furthermore, the mainstream parties have never failed to form a government in the history of the Federal Republic. Failure to do so, compounded by the current coalition talks status as the longest in German history, would likely yield electoral dividends for the extremist parties that campaign on public dissatisfaction.
In contrast to this political chaos, another Grand Coalition would produce a stable political center in parliament. Any negotiated agreement between the Union and SPD will surely commit to a mixture of common-sense policies taken from both the center-left and center-right. As both parties must agree on legislation to commit to, these will likely prove broadly agreeable to the German population and electorate. For instance, the SPD appears poised to gain the finance ministry from the CDU. The new government thus appears poised to deliver on the Social Democrats goals of increasing social spending, while also avoiding tax increases in deference to the conservatives. Beyond almost guaranteed popularity, such ideologically mixed economic policy will by its very nature provide stability, as the leftist and rightist elements of the coalition guard against the other sides more extreme tendencies.
"In contrast to this political chaos, another Grand Coalition would produce a stable political center in parliament."
Beyond promoting moderation at home, another Grand Coalition would provide stability within an international community at its most imperiled in decades. Anti-E.U. populists continue to make electoral gains across the continent, the European Union faces the inflection point of negotiating the first-ever exit of one of its members, and Donald Trump raises questions about America’s reliability as a partner. A reprisal of the previous government would commit Germany to the same policies that have led to its becoming the fulcrum and de-facto leader of Europe. With the Union offering the finance ministry to the SPD, it also appears less likely that Germany will continue to so stringently force Southern European countries to commit to austerity policies, the most destabilizing of Germany’s foreign policy positions. Of all possible German government’s a Grand Coalition would be most open to French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed EU reforms, which many on the continent view as exactly the revitalization the organization needs to address its current crises. These include creating both a budget and a finance minister for the eurozone and an autonomous European joint defense force. The eurozone reforms would provide the coordinated monetary policy needed to help the bloc better weather the next financial crisis, while the latter would allow European states to more unitedly respond to foreign crises, such as refugee migration and Russian revanchism. Both would bring the union closer to the United States of Europe that its founders had originally had in mind.
Lastly, Angela Merkel would only remain chancellor under a Grand Coalition. The FDP has already signaled an unwillingness to govern with her, and another election would lead to a realization of party member’s long-simmering desire for new leadership. Merkel, Europe’s most widely recognized and preeminent statesmen, has increasingly been labeled the new leader of the free world in light of the United States’ global retrenchment. Owing to this status, Merkel operates as a leading voice for the whole continent and serves as an anchor of stability in her own right. Her departure would leave Europe with a dearth of experienced leadership right at the moment it was most needed.
62% of Germans believe that their next government will be a GroKo, and it is increasingly looking like a GroKo will indeed be formed. Taking a step back, it is evident that its formation represents a step backward for Germany.
In modern Germany, a Grand Coalition (GroKo) describes a government formed from the two biggest parties in the Bundestag, the German parliament. As is the case with most European countries, no one party holds enough seats in parliament to form a majority. Therefore, parties usually form coalitions together in order to create a ruling government. Historically, only three Grand Coalitions have been formed since the formation of a German federal republic in 1949 .This GroKo will be the third formed under Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure: during the previous Coalitions, her party, the Christian Democratic Union, partnered with the Christian Social Union in Bavaria and the Social Democratic Party of Germany. While the CDU and CSU lean center-right, the SPD is a leftist party; their numerous political differences have caused tensions, both within the government and in the public’s decisions at the ballot box. GroKo, while a convenient way to create a stable government, is not representing the interests of its constituents. CDU and SPD voters are being forced to the right and left respectively, due to their parties’ inaction in the GroKo. Indeed, the SPD has suffered enormously ever since they formed the GroKo with Merkel. In 2005, they received 38.4% in the elections . In 2017, the SPD was reduced to 20.5%, representing leftist voters becoming increasingly disenchanted by the SPD’s involvement with a center-right party. This does not bode well for their future should they form another coalition with the Christian Democrats; SPD party leader Martin Schulz has publically suggested that his party needs time in opposition to rebuild its trust with voters and recover from its disastrous performance in the recent elections.
However, one party that has reason to celebrate is Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right populist party with links to questionable fringe organizations such as anti-Islamic hate movement Pegida . As SPD’s influence has crumbled, so has AfD taken up their losses: AfD was only founded in 2013, but by the 2017 federal elections has become the third largest party in Germany with 12.6% of the vote . The AfD’s left-wing populist counterpart, Der Linke, also recorded modest gains, going from 8% in 2005 to 9.2% in the 2017 federal elections, . This is worrying, as it demonstrates an increase in the number of German voters moving from the GroKo parties to fringe parties like AfD and Der Linke.
While the decline in popular support for the GroKo parties, and the subsequent rise of alternative populist parties is worrying, we have not yet discussed the implications that come as a result of ruling in a GroKo. As Der Spiegel reports, “In tax and social welfare policy, the parties are likely to come up with the kind of lazy compromises that make it even more difficult to determine what the parties stand for and which don't actually help the country. When it comes to the vital issue of climate protection, neither the SPD nor the conservatives are particularly passionate about it. And on Europe, an issue which both Merkel and Schulz would like to make the focus of an alliance, there are more open questions than either of them are willing to admit” .
Regarding the environment, GroKo represents a significant step backward. The environmental track records of both the CDU/CSU and SPD are mediocre at best: indeed, the only government official in Merkel’s previous administrations that was passionate about energy reform was Rainer Baake of the Green Party, who is a strong supporter of renewable energy and ending Germany’s reliance on coal . Baake was determined to begin removing coal-fired power plants from Germany’s grid; after SPD former-governor of North Rhine-Westphalia Hannelore Kraft spoke to the then SPD Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Baake’s plans were foiled . The SPD has no incentive to advocate for any kind of energy reform: the influential labor unions of coal power plants are a key supporter of the SPD, and are loathe to even consider the idea of reform. The CDU/CSU, traditionally more business-friendly, are beholden to the interests of the traditional energy sector. While Germany is normally at the forefront of European innovation and policy, a GroKo-controlled government will stand still while the rest of Europe moves forward to embrace more substantial environmental initiatives. In fact, Germany is on track to miss its 2020 climate targets .
"GroKo represents a significant step backwards."
Even though Germany has long been seen as the de-facto leader of Europe, the CDU/CSU and SPD differences over the structure of European finances make a consensus anything but certain. The SPD, like French president Emmanuel Macron, wants to create a dedicated budget for Europe, which would be used to reverse the economic slumps in less successful European economies (think Greece) . Meanwhile, the fiscally conservative CDU/CSU sees this proposal as an excuse to get Germany to contribute even more money, and are vehemently opposed to this. Therefore, it is difficult to manage Germany coming to a surefire conclusion regarding a Eurozone budget. Without Germany’s support, it is doubtful that France will be able to push this proposal into effect.
If we return to the question, “Should Germany be governed by the Grand Coalition?” my answer is a resounding no. Returning to yet another GroKo government not only means stagnation but also fuels the fires powering populist parties like AfD and The Left. If Germany does form another GroKo government (and it is likely to do so), both it and the European Union will be resigned to another four years of stagnation, during which the populist parties will grow in strength, waiting for the next election.
Sources and Notes
Featured Image Source: "Flag of the Federal Republic of Germany" by Brian Aslak— Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons — https://flic.kr/p/aRH2QR