Germany: A Different Kind of Democratic Dysfunctionality
Hans Kundnani is Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House. Before joining Chatham House in 2018, he was Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Much recent discussion of the crisis of liberal democracy has focused on polarization. Polarization is widely – and rightly – seen as a threat to democracy. “If one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies,” write Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in How Democracies Die. Looking at the United States, it is hard to deny that polarization is a problem – though it may depend on the kind of polarization as much as the extent of it.
However, there is also another danger for democracy – as the case of Germany illustrates. In the last two decades, Germany has increasingly come to exhibit a different – and in a sense the opposite – kind of democratic dysfunctionality than in the United States. In Germany, the problem has not been too much polarization between the two main parties but too little polarization – especially since Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005.
In Germany, the problem has not been too much polarization between the two main parties but too little polarization.
Before then, there had only ever been one grand coalition in the history of the Federal Republic. That coalition, under the Christian Democrat chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, lasted from 1966 to 1969. The perception it created that there was no longer an opposition in the Bundestag led to what became known as the Ausserparlamentarische Opposition, or “extra-parliamentary opposition” – the student rebellion that culminated in 1968. The far-right National Democrat Party (NPD) was also successful during this period – in the 1969 election, for example, it got 4.3 percent of the vote, the highest ever for a far-right party until the recent emergence of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
However, there have now been three grand coalitions in the last four electoral periods. The first came after Merkel failed to win a majority in the Bundestag in the 2005 election. She did better in the 2009 election and formed a “black-yellow” coalition with the liberal Free Democrats. But after the 2013 election she was again forced to go into coalition with the Social Democrats. By 2017, the Social Democrats, whose share of the vote went down to 20.5 percent, had had enough of grand coalitions. But after the collapse of talks between the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats, and the Greens to form a “Jamaica coalition,” they agreed to form yet another grand coalition after all.
But this politics of no alternatives was bound to provoke a backlash… As its name suggests, the AfD emerged as a direct response to Merkel’s politics of no alternatives.
Thus for the last fifteen years German politics has been dominated by what might be called the “Merkel consensus.” The basis of it was an ideological convergence between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. In particular, the Social Democrats had shifted to the right on economic policy under Gerhard Schröder. It was also this shift that led to a split within the left and the creation of Die Linke, which essentially made a “red-green” government impossible – and thus meant that a grand coalition was the only way the Social Democrats could be in government.
As chancellor, Merkel has frequently presented her policies as alternativlos, or “without alternative.” But this politics of no alternatives was bound to provoke a backlash – even in a consensual democracy like Germany. As its name suggests, the AfD emerged as a direct response to Merkel’s politics of no alternatives. It was initially formed to oppose her approach to the euro crisis in 2013, but after the refugee crisis in 2015 increasingly focused on issues around immigration and Islam.
The rise of the AfD has forced the mainstream parties to close ranks even more than they previously had, and makes grand coalitions even more likely. This in turn strengthens extremist parties, who are able to argue, with some justification, that the mainstream parties are indistinguishable from each other. Thus grand coalitions are often a response to the rise of extremist parties, but, as Wade Jacoby has shown, also further strengthen them.
Events in the state of Thuringia last year made the implications of this dynamic clearer. In an election in October 2019, the far-left Die Linke emerged as the largest party in the state parliament, followed by the AfD. In February 2020, after other parties refused to form a coalition with Die Linke, the Christian Democrats backed the Free Democrat candidate Thomas Kemmerich, who was elected as minister-president with the help of votes from the AfD – the first time mainstream parties had co-operated with a far-right party in this way.
There was almost unanimous outrage in Germany – and beyond – to what was seen as a political earthquake in Thuringia. Writing in the Spiegel and citing Levitsky and Ziblatt, Dirk Kurbjuweit wrote that the election of Kemmerich was “a sign of the gradual decay of German democracy” and that “the only appropriate course of action is complete disassociation from the AfD.” Ziblatt himself wrote in the Tagesspiegel that “the central task for German democracy” was to take a “hard line against the radical right.”
After the intervention of national political leaders including Merkel herself, Kemmerich resigned and Bodo Ramelow of Die Linke became minister-president again with the support of the other parties. Thus after a brief but significant lapse in Thuringia, the mainstream parties in Germany reverted to the strategy of gatekeeping that Levitsky and Ziblatt advocate.
Levitsky and Ziblatt admit that “some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy.” Germany is an example of what can happen if you do not have this kind of healthy, necessary polarization between the two main parties.
However, this strategy will not be enough to prevent the further rise of extremist parties like the AfD – and the Thuringia dilemma is likely to recur elsewhere in Germany and perhaps even at the national level. In fact, by strengthening even further the perception among voters that the two main parties form a kind of monolithic bloc, the strategy may even make the situation worse.
Instead of closing ranks, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats need to diverge in order to once again offer voters a real choice between a center-right party and a center-left party. That does not mean that the Christian Democrats should co-operate with the AfD, but it may mean that, in order to win back some of the voters they have lost to it, they will need to adopt positions that are closer to it. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats need to move further back to the left – as they seem to be doing under their new leaders Saskia Esken and Norbert Borjan-Walter, though they have not yet abandoned the grand coalition.
While focusing on the dangers of too much polarization, Levitsky and Ziblatt admit that “some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy.” Germany is an example of what can happen if you do not have this kind of healthy, necessary polarization between the two main parties. Ultimately it too can produce polarization – except outside the traditional party system rather than within it.
This article is based on an essay, co-authored with Sheri Berman, that appeared in the January 2021 issue of the Journal of Democracy.