A Paean to Boredom: Speculations on the Outcome of the Bundestag Election
University of Michigan
Andrei S. Markovits is an Arthur F. Thurnau and the Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Writing on the post-electoral scramble to form a governing coalition in the Huffington Post on September 9, Dr. Andrei Markovits and Joseph Klaver find this year’s election process “another boring ingredient in Germany’s competent governance.” They are also the authors of AGI German-American Issues 14: “Tally of the Greens’ Impact on the Federal Republic of Germany’s Political Life and Public Culture.”
The Founding Fathers ― and Mothers ― of the Federal Republic of Germany set out in the late 1940s to create a political system that was to foster stability, moderation, mediation, gradualism ― in short the precise opposite of the destructive turbulence of the Weimar Republic’s ill-fated history. Sixty four years after the foundation of the Federal Republic, this experiment in social engineering and institutional design could not have been more successful.
The Federal Republic of Germany has not only become a rich country governed by an exemplary liberal democracy; but its changes ― though substantial over the last six decades, none more so than the ones wrought by German unification in 1990 ― have occurred so measuredly and gradually that German politics cannot escape being characterized as boring. Nowhere is this more the case than in the elections that have occurred with regularity since 1949, as only twice ― in 1998 and 2005 ― have governments changed by dint of the German voters’ actions at the polls. All other governmental changes emerged as consequences of post-electoral coalitional shifts among the parties. Thus, in Germany at least, the post-electoral jockeying has always been much more exciting than the outcome on election day itself.
The forthcoming poll on Sunday, September 22 fits this pattern perfectly. There is really very little suspense as to Angela Merkel’s emergence as the solid winner of the national poll and her Union parties of CDU and CSU once again becoming the largest grouping in the new Bundestag. The CDU/CSU will garner about 40 percent of the vote. Then, however, the guessing game emerges as to who will accompany Frau Merkel on the government’s bench. The Free Democratic Party that furnished the Union parties’ junior coalition partner over the past four years seems to be poised yet again to squeak past the 5 percent hurdle that constitutes an electoral minimum to gain parliamentary representation. Of all of the five major parties the election is least boring for the FDP, which is also the only party that, according to numerous poll results, will lose representation in this election. The party appears poised to collapse from its 2009 perch of nearly 15 percent ― the best parliamentary election result in the party’s history ― to a level where it will barely qualify for any seats. This makes it seem quite unlikely that it will attain the necessary 8 percent or more to replicate the outgoing coalitional constellation thus necessitating a third party to furnish a functioning government. Would the Greens, slated to win around 13 percent of the vote, join in such an arrangement dubbed a “Jamaica Coalition” since it would replicate the black ― for the union parties ―, yellow ― for the Free Democrats ―, and green for the Greens? The likelihood of this happening is minimal to nil on account of two obstacles: The Free Democrats’ often-uttered distaste for and disdain of the Greens; and the latter’s continued taboo to enter a coalition with the conservative union parties on the federal level even though many such coalitions have occurred on lower levels of German politics.
Such a “Jamaica Coalition” might even prove to be too crowded for the current junior coalition partner, as it is mathematically possible that the union parties and the green party could control an outright majority of seats between the two of them, thus negating the necessity of keeping the FDP in the governmental fold. If current election prognostications are accurate, then this will indeed be the case. However, a black/green national government seems unlikely for the political reasons enunciated above. Although the current green/red government in Baden Wuerttemberg ― yes, the formerly small Greens furnish the senior partner in a coalition governing one of Germany’s most important and prosperous states ― has had a conservative bent with the Green leader expressing some readiness to coalesce with the CDU and Angela Merkel’s abrupt turnaround on nuclear issues in the fall of 2012, demonstrate a bit of a thaw in the relationship between the Union Parties and the Greens.
What about the other big party in the game, the Social Democrats, the Union parties’ main opponent? Despite four years of opposition work, the SPD appears poised to improve on its 2009 election result even if only by a scant few percentage points. With the party featuring a less than lackluster campaign and beset by a serious identity crisis essentially since the onset of the late 1970s and early 1980s which featured the emergence of the New-Left-influenced Greens that came to define virtually all topics of progressive politics in Germany and beyond; the SPD will most likely poll around 25 percent which would render a so-called Red-Green coalition that governed Germany between 1998 and 2005 arithmetically impossible. The numbers will also fall just short of the necessary 50 percent even if a slightly darker shade of red – the one representing the so called Left Party whose genesis hails from the former East Germany with important modifications over the past two decades- were to join this grouping. But since both the SPD and the Greens are on record that they would not form a coalition with the Left Party, numerical considerations remain moot and the Social Democrats have few options whereby they regain any spots on the government’s benches.
This then leaves a coalition between the two bigs ― the CDU/CSU and the SPD ― as the only viable option for the next German government. This so-called Grand Coalition that has appeared in the history of the Federal Republic twice ― 1966 to 1969 and 2005 to 2009 ― would represent a boring yet necessary kissing-your-sister kind of option that would leave many politicians and most assuredly Germany’s prolific punditry frustrated and disillusioned. Obviously the CDU/CSU would prefer to continue governing with the more ideologically similar FDP in lieu of the SPD; the Social Democrats, in turn, cannot complain too mightily about such an outcome as it is essentially the party’s only path to governmental power. However, quite tellingly, this Austrian option – where comparable Grand Coalitions have been the rule rather than the exception in the governance of the postwar polity – is considerably more popular amongst the German people: Polls have consistently revealed that a steady majority of Germans see a Grand Coalition as the most desired outcome of this election. Hooray for another boring ingredient in Germany’s competent governance.