With just over a week to go until Germany’s federal election, this is the height of the country’s “silly season”. And to prove that Germans can be silly too, one of the parties in the running, appropriately called Die PARTEI, offers this policy proposal in its platform: To transcend the “fruitless” debate about a “gender pay gap”, manager salaries will henceforth be tied to the size of managers’ brassiere cups.
Die PARTEI is the only openly satirical party among the 34 parties on the ballot — in every other case, satire during this campaign has been entirely unintentional. But the motley of political parties, which might remind you of the ominous political fragmentation during the Weimar era, distracts from a serious point: Germany’s democracy was rebuilt in 1949 precisely to prevent another Weimar, and thus a Fourth Reich. That is why the Germans gave themselves a complex electoral system that mixes the first-past-the-post voting practiced in America and Britain with proportional representation: Germans will choose a direct representative by ticking one box, and a party in the more important second box. And only parties with more than five percent of the second votes (or three direct representatives) will enter the Bundestag.
This means that to understand the German election, you really only need to know about seven parties, the ones that will enter the parliament. And those you absolutely must know, because the next government will be formed out of a coalition between several of them, amounting to a majority of seats.
Wait, aren’t the Germans just voting for Angela Merkel?, you ask. Here’s the surprise. Only the voters in one little district — number 15 in Pomerania, all the way in the north-east, right next to Poland — will even see the chancellor’s name on their ballots. And yet Ms. Merkel will remain chancellor nonetheless, because the arithmetic of the politically plausible coalitions makes any other outcome all but impossible.
That might take the excitement out of the election for you; but for us Germany geeks, this is where the fun part starts. What will the next government look like? Try this metaphor: You can imagine Ms. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, as a large carbon atom, ready to react with hydrogen, sulfur, silicon, or various other elements. The properties of the resulting compound will turn out to be completely different in each case. Some are boringly stable, others healthy, others toxic — and a few just stink.
Those other elements are called: the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democrats (SPD), the Free Democrats (FDP), the Greens, The Left, and the Alternative for Germany (AfD). To get rid of the abbreviations, the Germans have helpfully given each a color. The two Christian Unions (CDU and CSU) are black, because of the preponderance of black-robed clergy among their early supporters. The Social Democrats are red, thanks to Karl Marx. But so is The Left, which descends from East Germany’s Communist party, so it gets a darker shade of red, or sometimes purple. The classically liberal Free Democrats are yellow, purely as a fluke from some long-forgotten advertising campaign. The right-wing populist AfD is blue, because brown (the color of Nazis) was too harsh, and in any case already taken by one of the small parties, the NPD. The Greens are just what you would expect.
Back to the compounds. Germans label the possible coalitions by their color combinations. If red, yellow and green were to form a coalition, they would be a traffic light (but they have no chance of a majority, according to the polls). If black and green get together, they would be a kiwifruit. If they add yellow, they become Jamaica (after its flag). And so on.
Now: To make it both easy and fun for you to get to know all these parties, we’ve given you primers on each of the seven parties that will make it into the Bundestag, plus one on all the little parties (including the one with the brassieres you’re eager to research). Here they are.
But which combinations are good, and which are bad?, you ask, if you are American and expecting an endorsement. As part of a German publishing group, we don’t have a tradition of endorsing formally. But that won’t keep me from analyzing just what each color combination would mean. For that, come back here exactly one week from now — next Friday, two days before the election.
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