The Life of the Party

Photo by Sabine Vielmo


The Life of the Party

There is no reason to be sanguine about a coalition of misfits.

What is the main lesson of the German election?

What stands out to me is the extent to which Germans don’t expect much ideological coherence from the composition of their future government. Few of the coalitions that could emerge in the coming days and weeks are easy to define or defend in programmatic terms. A “traffic-light” coalition of the SPD, Greens and FDP, a prospect that seems the most likely to many, is distinctly hard to get a grip on. The tensions are obvious – promoting both social justice and neoliberalism at the same time, while also hoping to be a platform for environmentalism. More than just a compromise, it cuts across the great political divides of the age. The name is a good one: if a traffic-light shows red, yellow and green simultaneously, you’re going to have problems on the road.

The same difficulties apply, though not necessarily in greater measure, to the idea of another Große Koalition as well as other variations on this theme (“Kenia”, “Deutschland”). Such formations make little sense, other than as a way to divide up the spoils of office. At least “Jamaica” or “Red-Green-Red” have a touch of ideological plausibility.
Under Merkel, tensions of this kind could be overlooked. Her strong reputation and “pragmatic” credentials meant people could ignore them. She embodied the unity of the government. Whether such tensions will be more consequential in the next government remains to be seen. But it is striking how normalised they are in political commentary, no doubt one of the legacies of the Große Koalitionen.

I don’t see this as evidence of a decline of ideology; on the contrary, it is because the parties have some ideological substance that the potential coalitions look so contorted. It’s more a story of political fragmentation – the weakening of the old Volksparteien and the spread of support across others. These strange coalitions become thinkable because it seems ever harder for one or two parties to command a large share of the vote on their own.

Is the party system still the best way to organize democratic politics?

I think it is, but this pattern of odd alliances puts a strain on it – more than we tend to acknowledge. It makes it much harder for parties to uphold the commitments they define themselves by. It challenges their capacity to maintain clarity in what they stand for and to act on it.

Some might say: that’s not a problem. This is proportional-representation. The point is to give voice to diverse opinions. Who wants ideological politics anyway? Responsible government is about pragmatism and compromise rather than principle and consistency. But I think that’s the wrong way to see it. First, it makes it hard to break from the status quo. Anyone who cares about rising inequality or climate change, and many Germans do, is going to be disappointed by a coalition that pairs incompatible parties and is thus likely to frustrate efforts at change. “Polarisation” has a bad name – it tends to be invoked to describe everything that’s risky about a Red-Red-Green coalition – but polarisation is in some ways the essence of democracy. It’s what happens when people try to take on the status quo and change things for the better. And it’s hard to achieve meaningful polarisation if the government is a coalition of incompatibles.

Second, odd alliances dilute what parties stand for. When a party enters a coalition it inevitably gets coloured by its partners – it ends up putting its name to policies at odds with its electoral program. The sharper the compromises, the higher the stakes. If voters become convinced that parties have little commitment to the goals they espouse, the legitimacy of the system is weakened. Whether disaffection takes the form of rising non-voting, or the embrace of movements that define themselves by their hostility to everyone else, there are some long-term risks for democracy.

You make the case for minority governments: Why?

Minority governments, where the party or parties in charge don’t command a majority of seats, tend to be viewed sceptically. People associate them with instability and weakness (not just in Germany). It’s fair to say one would not choose them over a cohesive majority government. Compared to a coalition government composed of ideologically mismatched parties, they have some attractive features.

First, they are likely to do less damage to the ideological profile of the parties involved. With majorities sought around specific issues, there is less pressure on parties to support what they cannot coherently support. These are coalitions of the willing. Whether to approve or reject a set of proposals will be something that opposition parties can decide with reference to their commitments, and justify to their members and supporters in these terms. Given the likely distribution of seats in Bundestag, a wide range of such temporary coalitions would be possible. So a party’s capacity to maintain its principles is stronger.

Second, such an arrangement means clearer lines of responsibility. Law-making proceeds on a case-by-case basis, which means how party representatives choose to align themselves on the difficult decisions that require compromise will be evident at the moment of voting. Thirdly, this also means a stronger legislature. The size of the German government’s majority in recent years has often allowed it to take contentious decisions without much debate (e.g., during the eurozone crisis). A minority government would have to argue its case all the way.

What are the main tasks for the new government? And what is the best coalition to achieve this?

These election results permit more than one kind of minority government. Leaving aside a very minoritarian arrangement – i.e., the SPD alone – one is probably looking at the SPD and Greens (possibly plus Left) on the one hand, or the CDU/CSU and FDP on the other. Both would seem relatively coherent formations. I know which I would choose, but it’s not my business. In any case, I don’t expect to see a minority government – it seems less likely for now than in 2017. I will reiterate the more general point though: just because Germany has had a string of Große Koalitionen (indeed, especially given this point of departure), there is no reason to be sanguine about a coalition of misfits.


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