Bundestag election 2017 – the likely unlikely new government

The result is out and Angela Merkel will get her next coalition government running with the centrist-ecological Green Party and the neoliberal FDP. But how does this compare to the parties’ official agendas?

In my last post for the Genealogical World of Phylogenetic Networks, I showed a neighbour-net based on ‘political distances’ (PD) inferred from the answers of the German parties (big and small) to the questionnaire of the Wahl-O-Mat (see also this post in German). On this sunday, the sovereigns – the German voters – made their decision. Time to sit (and look) back: With respect to the answers to the Wahl-O-Mat questionnaire, the most coherent (PD = 0.23; less than 25% disagreement) potential coalition would be the outgoing Große Koalition (the coalition of the two largest parties) that ruled Germany the last four years. However, the minor partner, the SPD (social-democratic party) announced directly that it will go into opposition facing its worst (and deserved, I may add) result since 1945. The next-coherent coalition (PD = 0.23–0.41), collecting the most authoritarian and distinctly neoliberal political parties (CDU/CSU, FDP, AfD; see also assessment by the Political Compass), which would also have a large (nearly 60%) majority in the coming parliament, has been rejected prior to the election by all three potential partners. Minority governments, e.g. a coalition of the CDU/CSU and FDP (29 seats short of an absolute majority), two parties that are generally close to each other as also reflected in their answers to the Wahl-O-Mat (PD = 0.23), are considered a no-go in German politics. So, the ecology-prioritising Greens (‘Die Grünen’) and the economy-&- finance-first (neo)liberals, the FDP, will probably get themselves together and have a toad-eating party to sign a coalition contract that allows Angela Merkel to run the country another four years.

Such a coalition, termed ‘Jamaica coalition’ – due to the parties’ traditional colours, black, green, and yellow; not because they have to drink a lot of rum to get along – has been tried twice on the state-government level (one failed in the Saarland, one fresh in Schleswig-Holstein is still running smoothly). Rumours were that it may be inevitable – the swift reaction of many SPD officials to the first prognoses on voting eve showed that the party was determined to sneak out of Merkel's government. Consequently, main antagonists of both Greens, a still ecology-conscious party with a long history of battling industrial overexploitation, and the FDP, Germany’s least ecological, least social, and most commerce-friendly party, have been cuddling a lot prior to the election to ease the shock. Not a few commentators, including those of more left-ish media outlets have advertised the Jamaica coalition as a natural consequence arguing that both the Greens and the FDP represent the cultured classes (obviously using a broad definition; I would object that just being rich, the only reason to vote for the FDP, equals being cultured, see e.g. the sitting U.S. president).

Neighbour-net of the Big Six based on political distances. The potential coalitions for a majority government are highlighted, with the number and percentage of seats indicated. Only one, the least-coherent and weakest Jamaika-Koalition (Jamaica coalition) remains a possibility.

At the same time, both parties made sure to disagree in most important points prior to the election, as reflected in their disparate answers to the Wahl-O-Mat (PD = 0.55; see also the position of all three parties in the network). In 21 of the 38 questions of the Wahl-O-Mat questionnaire, the future likely coalition members took opposing positions (see also this post [in German], and this list [XLSX][PDF]). Whatever it will be that this hopeful coalition will/can agree on, it will either be very little or a slap in the face to either the voters of the Greens (mainly; PD to CDU/CSU = 0.46), the CDU/CSU, or the FDP or all three. Well, regarding the voters who believed party programmes and/or made an informed choice (see also my upcoming post on voter migration in this year’s election).

What could the future bring for Germany if we don’t force parties into coalitions

The example of Belgium and the long history of minority governments in Scandinavia, countries that are typically found in the top-10/-20 lists of education, quality of living, and even economy, show that modern stabilised democracies don’t turn to anarchy just because a government has no fixed parliamentary majority (which is a concern repeatly raised in Germany, because of the failure of the Weimar Republic between 1918–1933). It may be easier for smaller states than for large ones such as Germany with over 80 million inhabitants (no country in Scandinavia, or Belgium, has more than 10 million inhabitants) [Side note: This is something the EU might consider for a brighter future, break down the traditional nations into geographic units of max. 10 million inhabitants, and democratise the decision making process.] On the other hand, Germany is not only a parliamentary democracy but also a federal state with a lot of constitutional safe-guards. Each state has a government (and quite different ones currently, see below) and our upper house, the Bundesrat representing the state governments, (still) has some influence on legislation. Furthermore, Germany has a very efficient public administration, and could probably function even without any formal government like Belgium did for 589 (!) days (no unusual fatalities recorded in that time).

So, let’s take a look how policies could look like in the next four years in Germany, when questions of the Wahl-O-Mat, put together by our Youth assisted by political scientists, would just be passed on to the new Bundestag without any prior coalition constraints. As basis, I take my character mapping of the Wahl-O-Mat questions on the neighbour-net above, including only the six largest parties (all of which are in the next Bundestag).
Some examples (see here: [XLSX][PDF], for the full list).
In the new Bundestag there could be a majority to stop promoting the extension of the renewable energy sector (CDU/CSU + FDP + AfD vs. Linke [=Left Party] + Grüne [Greens] + SPD), but also to impose a limit on the number of animals exploited per commune (Linke + Grüne + SPD + AfD vs. FDP). [The CDU/CSU responded ‘neutral’ in this question, which usually reflects that CDU and CSU could not agree on an answer; Bavaria is one of the states where industrial animal mass-exploitation is heavily guarded by the government, although most Bavarians don't support it.]
The CDU/CSU would have to decide whether it should side with the FDP, a party appealing to the rich, and the AfD, a party appealing to the poor, in opposing introducing a wealth tax for the richest, or (less likely) side with the Left Party and Greens, who campaigned for it. [The SPD, as a former workers' party, did pass to answer this one. And with 153 opposition MPs left, their position on the matter now hardly matters.]
There would be no capping of the number of people searching asylum and refuge in one of the richest countries in the world (Linke + Grüne + SPD + FDP vs. AfD and CSU). [The CSU made clear that it will not sign any coalition contract without such a limit, whereas Merkel (sister party CDU) repeatedly stated the opposite, hence their joined ‘neutral’ response in the Wahl-O-Mat questionaire. It will be fun to see if both Grüne and FDP will give the CSU what it wants, as CDU and SPD did, when it came to the toll for foreigners using the German Autobahn. Also then, Merkel, before the 2013 election, rejected this wish by the CSU, and now it has been scheduled to start next(!) year.]
Supported by a large majority and only opposed by the FDP and AfD, legislation could be passed to spend more money on subsidised housing (affordable housing is a major problem in large German cities).
The long-debated double citizenships could be introduced with the votes of the Left Party, Greens, the SPD and the FDP, whereas the CDU/CSU would not need to position itself in this delicate question and risk alienating more of its voters (the CSU is strongly opposing double citizenships, as is the extreme-right AfD).
Conversely, the SPD and CDU/CSU (assisted by the AfD) can prevent the (partial) legalisation of cannabis campaigned for by the Left Party and the Greens, but also the FDP (i.e. two of the four parties in the likely future coalition government).
The Big Baby in th Oval Office could be made happy because the large majority (420 MPs) of the authoritarian-neoliberal parties (CDU/CSU, FDP, AfD) could easily increase the military funding, a move only opposed by some hundred MPs of the Left Party and Greens. [With respect to the many employees in the military-industrial complex in Germany, the former workers’ party SPD naturally cannot position itself regarding such a question. In the likely event of a ‘Jamaica’ coalition contract, however, the Greens will have to further alienate a substantial amount of their voters (the peace movement was one of the main movements forming the Green Party in the 80s) trying to explain to them why we must spend (useless) billions on more weapons in order to get some of the promises fulfilled, where they clash with the parts of the CDU, the CSU, and/or the FDP.]

A plea for minority governments

It has been argued that parties alienate an increasing proportion of the electorate in our democracies, including Germany. The electorate in Germany, as well as in other large western democracies, has become more volatile, and hence, the political landscape more colourful. Even using a non-proportional voting system that should assure a parliamentary absolute majority, the British Tories failed (the second time) to secure a majority; in the U.S. and France, equally non-proportional voting systems have led to presidents and parliamentary majorities opposed by a majority of voters (in France at least, we still have a quite colourful opposition).

The current composition of the Bundesrat, the second chamber of the German parliament. Note the variety of coalitions ruling the various federal states. The likely Jamaica coalition is currently 8 seats short of a majority (the six seat of Lower Saxony are likely to swap hands in coming October's election (from SPD-Greens to CDU-FDP)

In contrast, the Benelux and Scandinavian states do not fare worse with their long-established multi-party parliaments, shifting (short-term) coalitions and minority governments. Now the largest EU country, Germany – traditionally ruled by two large parties claiming to be parties for all of the people (Volksparteien) – has become colourful as well. There are all kinds of coalitions in the federal states (form a Left Party-SPD-Green coalition in Thuringia to the CSU homerule in Bavaria; see graphic above) and six parties in the parliament that campaigned with quite different programmes (well at least the four smaller ones). The outcome of this election – the turnout increased to four years ago – would be a chance to make a bold choice that accepts the current political diversity by forming a minority government. The alternative is a shady deal, with one or several parties further destroying their reputation. Being in office since 2005, Merkel is surely experienced enough to find majorities beyond her own party on a case-to-case basis (under her rule, Germany turned its back on nuclear power and general military conscription; two long-standing goals of the Greens since their beginnings and fiercely opposed by the CDU, the very party of Merkel, and its Bavarian sisterparty, the CSU). Furthermore, it would become possible to pass legislation that is supported by the actual majority of the electorate and parliament (such as the double citizenship for foreigners born in Germany) but not in her own party. It would also avoid legislation forced on a coalition by a single minor party (such as the highway toll for foreigners and the potential limit for people searching asylum and refuge in Germany advocated by the Bavarian CSU, which lost one fourth of its support in this election). And in four years’ time, the (interested) voters could judge the parties and MPs based on what they voted for in parliament, and not, what they had to vote for because it was part of a deal signed in 2017. Parties and MPs could claim responsibility for their choices, and could more firmly stand to their pre-election promises and long-term programmes. And voters would have to face the consequences of their choice on election day (such as the many voters of the AfD, a party that runs no risk of having to fulfil a single of their promises being a priori excluded from any possible coalition government). 

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