Berlin—Germany is currently suspended in an awkward state of political limbo, unable to piece together a government since the September 24 national vote. But the severest crisis of governance since the republic’s foundation, as it’s being hailed, is perhaps not as tragic as it looks at first sight. In fact, the exceptional situation may just prove to be a healthy shot in the arm for Germany’s stale democratic culture. If they were bold, Germans would treat it like a lifeline and pounce on the option of a minority government, the stewardship of which could well have a leftist slant—and open the way to a modicum of progressive policies.
Germany was plunged into political turmoil Sunday night when the pro-business liberal party, the Free Democrats, unexpectedly bailed out of exploratory coalition talks that included Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Greens. The talks addressed the possibility of Germany’s first-ever national “Jamaica coalition,” called such because the colors of the German parties—black, yellow, green—match those of Jamaica’s flag. This odd constellation was the result of the September election’s fractured results, which put six parties into the Bundestag—including the novice far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)—and created very few workable coalition options for majority rule.
The Social Democrats’ (SPD) thrashing at the polls prompted them, quite reasonably, to eschew another term as Merkel’s lesser teammate, even though a renewed grand coalition would have been the easiest and most obvious path for the country. Capturing just 21 percent of the vote, the 150-year-old party of the working classes could not, as leftists had hoped, pilot a left-wing coalition with the Greens and the democratic-socialist Left party (Die Linke), a so-called “red-red-green” government like those in the city-state of Berlin and southern Thuringia. (The 2005 elections had birthed red-red-green majorities on the national level, but the SPD let the moment pass, demurring from coupling with The Left, its more radical counterpart and relentless detractor.)
The Free Democrats’ motive for ditching the Jamaica talks after nearly five torturous weeks cooped up in meeting rooms until the wee hours is considered somewhat unclear, although its stated reason—simply that there was no common vision among the parties—rings true enough to me. Jamaica would have been a dog’s breakfast that no one had voted for (most Green voters, for example, eyed a coalition with the two other leftist parties, not the Christian Democrats and the increasingly nationalist liberals). Moreover, it would have left the AfD as the second-strongest opposition party in the Bundestag, for which a bumbling coalition of necessity would surely have been easy pickings, with disappointed conservatives and right-wingers falling like lemmings into the AfD’s lap.
So now Germany is up in arms, the Chicken Littles shrieking that the sky is falling down on the Federal Republic, the mighty bastion of stability and economic mojo at the center of a quivering Europe. Some observers, and it seems Merkel too, want new elections. But polls currently show all of the parties roughly where they landed in September. Elections, then, wouldn’t change anything. Others believe that the SPD should stop pouting and save the nation by rejoining a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU, and thus reversing its vow to soul-search for a term in the shelter of the opposition. The SPD, however, swears it won’t budge.
Yet there’s another opportunity that opens up exciting, new vistas for Germany, certainly providing for a more lively and democratic parliamentary politics. Germany has never been run by a minority government, even though it’s quite common in Europe—for example in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, which have systems similar to Germany’s, ones that have functioned well under minority rule. If Germans were game for the adventure—and indeed some are, though currently poli-sci professors dominate the fan base—there would suddenly be a host of options, though perhaps most likely would be a Christian Democrat–Green (black-green) minority government, since the CDU, as leading vote-getter, has first right to form a government.
Such a construct makes more sense than meets the eye. For one, Christian Democrats and Greens govern side by side in several of Germany’s federal states (including Baden-Württemberg, where the Greens lead the provincial government) and dozens of cities. Had both the Greens and the CDU/CSU scored better in the election, a black-green leadership would almost certainly have already settled in at the chancellery on the Spree. The two parties’ less ideological wings tend to see eye to eye on re-upping the social-welfare state, many environmental issues, important aspects of EU integration, and other topics. The option of shacking up with the conservatives (notably with the CDU, not the more conservative CSU, which would participate in a national coalition and complicate things) has given the Greens a new lease on life in contrast to the past, when they were forced to stake everything on the fortunes of the troubled SPD.
Germany’s democratic processes would be shaken up for the better, since a minority coalition would necessarily mean that the government would have to go hunting for majorities in the Bundestag, hooking up with one or the other party to pass legislation on an issue-to-issue basis. This would open up the Bundestag to a freewheeling exchange of ideas and arguments, far different from how it works today. For decades, Germany’s parties have voted largely along party lines with tedious discipline: government parties most of the time unanimously in favor of government bills, the opposition against. Since the government has always had the majority in its pocket, debate wasn’t worthy of the term; it was political cabaret.
On the Web page of the monthly Cicero, Green politico Rasmus Andresen argues for giving a minority government a whirl in Germany. “The de facto disempowerment of the Bundestag by the grand coalition has damaged our democracy. It’s time to give power back to parliament, not the government.” He points out that “more decisions could be made by those with a direct mandate from the demos, namely the MPs.”
Moreover, if there were a black-green minority combo, the Greens would be in the catbird seat. The little environmental party, born out of the 1970s social movements, is a troupe chock-full of ideas and policy initiatives that have been piling up since 2005, the last year it shared power (back when “red-green” alone commanded majorities). The Christian Democrats, on the other hand—not an idea party to begin with—have very little left on their wish list after a dozen years in power, which is why they pillaged the SPD’s stocks so thoroughly during their last term. Moreover, Merkel, especially if put under pressure, could come around on better climate protection, more progressive taxes, and, critically, integrationist reforms of the eurozone and EU. The Jamaica negotiations underscored that there are a raft of such policy rubrics where the CDU and the Greens could connect—after much wrangling—but the liberals couldn’t. The Free Democrats are a right-wing party ultimately angling to pry votes away from the AfD through nationalist baiting; it is the party that wouldn’t have been able to live with the most progressive compromises of a Jamaica coalition, as their exit from the four-party talks showed. The Greens, on the other hand, would have two parties in the Bundestag—the SPD and The Left—with which it could connect to set a leftist accent on the term.
Germans, however, are skeptical—as is Merkel. Surveys show that only 24 percent of the volk could envision such a set-up. Burghers and elites fear for Germany’s stability in a dangerous world, with Europe surrounded by autocratic regimes and a menace across the Atlantic where there was once a favorite ally.
“Really, there’s no reason why Germany would be any less stable or agile in foreign affairs,” says Eric Chauvistre, a political scientist at Magdeburg-Stendal University, about a minority-led government. “For crucial foreign-policy decisions, a minority government could almost certainly rely on the other Bundestag parties. Most such policies have always had large majorities behind them in the past. It might, though, require more to-and-fro and more accountability, which would be welcome. Just look at Germany’s ill-advised armed interventions in Afghanistan and Mali, which happened with barely a peep.” And putting EU policy on the table would make it more transparent, says Chauvistre, perhaps helping the EU win back trust.
In his historic 1969 run for chancellor, Willy Brandt challenged West Germans “to dare more democracy.” Fears that Germany could descend into Weimar-style chaos, which is an image bandied about in Germany today, are completely misplaced. Germany’s rejuvenation could well emerge from the chaotic conditions of Jamaica’s demise.