No coalition: a new age in German politics

By Toni Michel Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/23 20:43:39

Shortly before midnight on November 19, the airwaves were filled with news that negotiations for a German governing coalition between the Conservatives, the Greens and the Liberals had collapsed after the latter walked out of the negotiations. 

Given the September electoral outcome and the political parties' positioning since then, all potential ways forward are now unprecedented in Germany's postwar political history.

Never has there been a minority government on the national level before; and never were new elections called because the parties were unable to form a ruling coalition.

We are witnessing nothing short of a paradigm shift in Germany's postwar politics. So where does this dislocation come from and more importantly, where will it take us?

To understand what has unfolded this past week, we must first grasp two basic trends of politics in Germany: a contradiction in voter preferences and a process of de-alignment from parties among the general population.

In every democracy, there is an inherent tension of voter expectations toward political parties. Parties should not only ensure a stable and competent government - sometimes requiring far-reaching compromises, yet should also stand up for their principles and "stick to their values."

While this delicate balance is present in all democracies, Germany sticks out as more conservative in this regard, due to its history. The unstable, ever-shifting governments of the late 1920s were a core factor in paving the way for the Nazi to rise to power. Thus today, the more conservative approach of forming a stable government is often stressed in German national discourse. German chancellors also tend to serve long terms. Since the founding of the Federal Republic, chancellors served on average for eight and a half years - impressive when compared to its other similarly sized European counterparts with parliamentary systems, such as Italy or the UK.

The second important trend is the process of de-alignment among voters and the loss of ideological profile among parties. All over the West, as well as in Germany, voters are no longer defined by their social background and associate less and less with a single political movement. Today, political party voter profiles are not so clear-cut, with new dividing lines arising around the issues of globalization, migration and sovereignty.

In navigating this new political environment, Germany's mainstream political parties have lost their previously distinct ideological profiles. Since the early 2000s, on the ideological left, the Social Democrats passed neoliberal labor market reforms and the Greens lost their ideological edge when their selling point of ecology was integrated into the political identities of all other parties.

On the right, Chancellor Angela Merkel hollowed out the profile of her own party through a centrist policy that left behind many landmark conservative policies like traditional marriage, nuclear energy, the draft and, not to forget, an open-door refugee policy that stoked identity fears.

The key protagonist here, the Liberals, lost much of their identity in the late 2000s, so much so that they were perceived as a mere appendix of Merkel's Conservatives. Eventually, after 64 consecutive years in parliament, the Liberals were thrown out of the Bundestag in 2013, losing all their 93 seats.

In 2017, rejuvenated and modernized by their energetic leader Christian Lindner, they won 10.7 percent of the vote and returned to national politics. Clearly eager not to repeat past mistakes, they are now striving again to establish a clear political identity.

The Liberals' decision to quit the coalition talks on Sunday amid talk of "standing up for our principles" has put the party in direct contradiction with the aforementioned core conservative element of German political mentality: the need to create stable governments. As Germany is plunged into political crisis, many commentators are now crying foul over the Liberals' "political games" and "brinkmanship." Yet de-aligned mainstream voters might actually appreciate this breath of fresh air within Germany's politics.

Fundamentally, the Liberals have put a simple, yet immensely important, question before the German people: Do you still prefer the conservative paradigm of stable government over value-based opposition - even if that leads to political instability? Will you reward this sort of "principled brinkmanship" or will you punish it in the next election?

Future German coalition governments will consist of three to four parties due to voter de-alignment, and will thus require more compromises. The Liberals' "uncompromising" strategy will create a significant precedent for other parties to copy if successful or to dismiss if harmful.

Will Germany continue its path of rigid political stability or will more volatile, polarized politics ensue? The Liberals' standing after the next election will tell. 

The author is the founder of the start-up consultancy and an analyst of European and post-Soviet affairs. Jiang Yuan, the co-founder of the start-up consultancy and an analyst of post-Soviet and International affairs, contributed to this article.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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