Germany's election stalemate

September 25, 2009
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This Sunday Germany goes to the polls to elect a new government. It has been an odd election. For the last four years, Germany has been run by a grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats—a temporary power sharing arrangement forced by a situation in which neither of the two main parties was able to form a majority with their preferred coalition partner after the last general election in 2005. After working together effectively if unspectacularly for four years, the Christian Democrat chancellor Angela Merkel and the Social Democrat foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier now face each other as opponents. But because they both share responsibility for the achievements, and failures, of the current government, they are unable to attack or even really differentiate themselves from each other. The result has been a somewhat lacklustre campaign, even by German standards, in which the two leading candidates have avoided talking about the key issues, such as the war in Afghanistan.

The main reason for the stalemate situation in German politics is the rise of the Linke, the left-wing party led by Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi, which has turned German politics into a five-party system and made it harder than before to form a two-party coalition. It won 9 per cent of the vote at the last election, making it the fourth-largest party, and since then has regularly scored above 10 per cent in opinion polls. However, because it evolved out of the SED, the former East German communist party, and remains on the far left, the Social Democrats have so far refused to form a coalition involving it on a national level (though their attitude is softening and it seems to be only a matter of time before they give in completely). Paradoxically, although there is a de facto left-wing majority in Germany, there is almost no possibility of a Social Democrat-led government being formed on Sunday.

Angela Merkel is therefore almost certain to be chancellor after Sunday’s election – it is just a question of what kind of government she will lead. For most of the election campaign, it seemed as if the Christian Democrats would have a sufficient lead over the Social Democrats to be able to form a coalition with their preferred partner, the liberal Free Democrats. If that happens, they are likely to cut taxes and bring back nuclear power after Gerhard Schröder’s “red-green” government began to phase it out. But as the Social Democrats have gained ground in the last month or so, it now looks increasingly likely that there will once again be a stalemate—which means another grand coalition. There could also be some sort of three-party coalition, but none of the possible permutations seems likely yet (the Greens have ruled out a coalition with the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats, the Free Democrats have ruled out a coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens, and so on).

All of this makes it extremely difficult for ordinary Germans to know how to vote even if they know what they want. For example, some analysts argue that a Social Democrat supporter who wants a “red-green” coalition should actually vote for the Greens. If that wasn’t complex enough, the German electoral system complicates things even more. You get two votes: one for a named constituency candidate and one for a party. Some of the members of the Bundestag therefore have a direct mandate like British MPs, whereas others win seats based on their position on party lists. But the seats (whose number is not fixed) are allocated in an arcane way that even apparently makes it possible for a party to receive fewer seats the more votes it receives. This election is probably exciting for mathematicians, but that’s about it.