German Election

Not Another Grand Coalition

In 2013, Angela Merkel's justification for the reissue of the alliance was that it was a grand coalition for great tasks. Source: DPA

The maxim of governing by decree (“durchregieren”) comes from Angela Merkel. She prefers to pursue it with overwhelming majorities in Germany’s lower and upper house, the Bundestag and Bundesrat respectively. Apparently her chief of staff has now taken this all too literally and called for an election boycott against the far-right party Alternative for Germany.

It is true that the part is unelectable, given its xenophobic agitation and anti-Semitic statements. But when the head of the chancellery calls upon German voters not to vote at all rather than vote for the AfD, it is a breach of taboo. Exercising the right to vote is the greatest good in a democracy. According to Article 38 of Germany’s Basic Law, the members of the Bundestag are elected in a “general, direct, free, equal and secret vote.” The vote is a basic right of German citizens. It wasn’t particularly comforting when, a short time later, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière dutifully called upon citizens to vote on Sunday, after all. If necessary, citizens can also “submit an invalid vote,” he added.

There is only one upshot to the entire debate: A third grand coalition under Ms. Merkel would further test the limits of democracy. With his unfortunate remark, her confidant and chief of staff Peter Altmaier made it clear that the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) covered up urgent problems in the last four years and did not speak openly. This strengthens the fringes. According to the polls, the AfD and the Left Party combined will win almost a quarter of the seats in the Bundestag.

Much of this can be attributed to the grand coalition’s refugee policy, which has created a crisis of confidence in parts of the population. Many Germans still believe that their concerns are not acknowledged in the Bundestag, not just by the grand coalition, but also by a mega-coalition of the CDU, its Bavarian sister (CSU), the SPD, the Greens and occasionally the Left Party. The big-tent parties should not be surprised on election night when this segment of the population decides to take its vote elsewhere.

The argument of proponents of a grand coalition, that even the opposition must not necessarily always vote against the administration, is certainly correct. But then the lawmakers who speak out against the chancellor’s refugee policy or the federal government’s bailout funds in the euro crisis should not be sidelined within their parliamentary group. Citizens notice this and seek someone to represent their views in the extra-parliamentary opposition. This estrangement between the government and citizens also affects the media. The fact that the term “lying press” has taken hold shows how deeply mistrustful some segments of the population are.

The SPD is likely to face a disaster.

You don’t have to be a prophet to predict that the CDU/CSU and the SPD will not do as well in the election as they did four years ago. The CDU/CSU will likely get over its poorer performance when it becomes the new administration. The SPD is likely to face a disaster, with some Social Democrats fearing a historically dismal result. They are not alone. Their sister parties in the Netherlands, Greece and France have all but shrunk into insignificance. New forces like the movement of French President Emmanuel Macron have essentially replaced the shopworn Social Democrats. However, there is a risk that this will lead to the wrong conclusions.

On election night, some members of the SPD will immediately invoke a statement made by former Chairman Franz Müntefering in 2004: Opposition is nonsense! But this raises the question of whether Mr. Müntefering still feels the same way in 2017, or whether current political conditions do not require a fundamentally new appraisal of the situation.

In the long term, the German system of government is not designed for an overwhelming governing majority without a strong opposition in the parliament. SPD pioneer Egon Bahr always warned against such alliances. He believed that it is in the interest of German stability that the major parties are alternately in charge of the government and seek a smaller coalition partner.

If this does not happen, we end up with a sclerotic republic, in which citizens let off steam in the voting booth. If the current trend continues, the SPD will soon be one of the smaller partners. If things go especially poorly for the Social Democrats, the margin between the SPD and the AfD will melt away. On the other hand, as of today the CDU/CSU will need at least two partners to form a government.

In 2013, Chancellor Merkel’s justification for the reissue of the alliance was that it was a grand coalition for great tasks. In 2017, Ms. Merkel should take a look at neighboring Austria, where she can see how devastating such permanent alliances between the conservatives and the Social Democrats, with a large majority in the parliament, can be. Austria is a divided country, where gridlock has favored the rise of right-wing populists. Today they are being courted by both the left and the right.

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