Another month, another phony crisis in the “grand coalition,” another skillful fudge by the chancellor, and another sad return to business as usual. Germany’s government this week yet again performed an act somewhere between Kabuki and the Theater of the Absurd.
A second-tier bureaucrat (named Hans-Georg Maassen) says inappropriate things. The three parties in the coalition issue dueling quasi-ultimatums about how to deal with him. The coalition briefly seems at risk of rupture. A last-minute deal (a) removes the bureaucrat from his job by (b) promoting him from pay grade B9 to B11 in another bureaucracy.
And so Germany’s government stumbles onward. Angela Merkel can say that she has yet again held on to power. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier can claim that “stability” has been preserved. The coalition keeps biding its time with trivialities.
This is not good enough. Not for the EU’s largest economy and most populous country. Not at a time of climate change, digital revolution, rising populism, creaking welfare states, and uncontrolled migration. Not when the government has so much to do.
The CDU, CSU and SPD were never meant to be together again. They neither like nor trust one another. They are partners only because other coalitions, alas, were not possible this time. But if this coalition collapses, it’s not too late to try the next-best option.
That option is a minority government. Germans are aghast at the idea. They associate it with the Weimar Republic and its chaos. That is unfair. Many mature democracies, from our friends in Canada to those Down Under, have long experience with minority government. None resembles Weimar.
What minority government means is that leaders must seek ad hoc majorities in parliament on the merits of each policy. This makes for shifting majorities and often strange bedfellows, scrambling old allegiances and categories like “left” and “right.” It also elevates the role of reasoning and oratory in law-making. Minority government thus downgrades partisan structures, but upgrades parliament as such.
By doing so, it approximates republican vigor as imagined by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, the deepest thinkers on the subject. In the Federalist Papers, they worried about the rise of “factions.” They wanted the people’s representatives to be free thinkers, loyal not to a party but to their voters and country. (Today’s Republicans and Democrats would have been their worst nightmares.)
Germany has a different tradition. Its constitution, unlike America’s, explicitly mentions parties as political organs. That is fine. Nobody is suggesting that parties should be abolished — merely, that parliamentary democracy can work without formal coalitions between them.
But minority government does demand a certain kind of leader. Ideally, a Pericles or Churchill. At a minimum someone with clear visions, bold language, inspiring contrasts. Angela Merkel, for all her prowess in the past 13 years, is not that person.
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