Can Europe Make It?

Black-Red, Black-Green? German party coalitions and the new left majority

Angela Merkel might have won the last German elections, but she now needs a new coalition partner. So who will it be? Coalitions can be formed willingly by intentional partners, or they can emerge out of necessity, forced by the reality of the vote.

Catherine Stupp
4 October 2013
Flickr/Siemar. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Siemar. Some rights reserved. 

Before the September 22 parliamentary elections, much of the foreign coverage of German politics described Angela Merkel, the incumbent candidate for chancellor, as widely tipped to win reelection. Her broad popularity among German voters seemed to exceed many observers' ability to understand her appeal, but Merkel's conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, won a sweeping 41.5% of the vote, appearing to confirm pre-election predictions of success. However, the reporting on her and her opponents' campaigns often deployed a rather simplified account of the German electoral system that has obscured the actual election outcome.

It is true that Merkel won big. Her party even came close to an absolute majority in the Bundestag, which has only ever happened during the tenure of Konrad Adenauer, Germany's first post-war chancellor and another three-term conservative legend. Merkel and her party were not expecting to reach an absolute majority, so falling short of it was not a loss for her. The disastrous defeat of her coalition partner over the last four years, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), however, will have a real effect on her next term. The FDP's belly-flop, which resulted in its expulsion from the Bundestag for the first time in post-war history having failed to reach the necessary 5% threshhold, must have been hugely disappointing for Merkel. Then again, during the campaign season there was hushed, and sometimes explicit, speculation about the FDP's weakness, and what political compromises Merkel would prefer to make if that party did not make it into the Bundestag. Now, Merkel's CDU and its potential coalition partners have each held internal meetings, and while Merkel's party is still ostensibly considering whether it would rather govern with the Social Democrats (SPD) or the Greens, it will begin preliminary discussions with the SPD this Friday.

A new power dynamic is emerging between the three struggling left-leaning parties, resulting from the weakness of the Greens (who received 8.4% of the vote compared to 10.7% in 2009), along with the SPD's only marginal improvement from the 2009 elections, and the Left Party's slip in support, but gain in proportional strength in the Bundestag.

For the first time in German history, the Left Party received the third best election results, after the SPD and CDU. Although the CDU is still the strongest party in the Bundestag, the opposition is now more left-leaning than ever. But the three leftist and left-leaning parties have their differences, and the variety between the parties opposing the CDU is also a reason why no single opponent was able to pose a serious threat to the CDU's grip on the chancellery. While the SPD and Green Party ruled out a three-party coalition with the more radical Left Party this year, disappointed representatives from both parties were quick to mention after the election that the Left Party could very likely begin to play a decisive role in future coalition considerations. Gregor Gysi, one of the Left Party's leaders, celebrated his party's new strength in the Bundestag—the SPD's and Green Party's resolute stance against a three-party coalition had brought them nowhere, he said.

German politicians and the German media use a number of names to talk about possible coalitions. These names refer to the colour combinations that would result, for example, from a grand coalition (black-red) or a possible SPD, Green and Left Party coalition (red-red-green). Some of Germany's states have previously been governed by “Jamaica” (CDU-FDP-Green) and “traffic light” (SPD-FDP-Green) coalitions, testing the compatibility of different parties and giving national politicians points of reference for their future viability as coalitions, alternatively, for their overwhelming incompatability. These potential governments are now being analysed and debated by all potential partners: how they worked at whatever level and what result they had in the subsequent elections.

Coalitions can be formed willingly by intentional partners, or they can emerge out of necessity, forced by the reality of the vote. The SPD and the Green Party are for now still reluctant to join a governing coalition with the CDU; their close affiliation with a conservative government could tarnish their credibility with the parties' support bases. But politicians from the SPD and the Green Party have been very present in the German media since the election, and their tones have changed. Embattled SPD and Green politicians, once stubborn opponents of Merkel, now give the impression that they might be warming up to governing with her party. Technically, the numbers would still add up for a three-party red-red-green coalition with the Left Party, although aside from the SPD's and Greens' ongoing rejection of that possibility, the CDU is very likely to succeed in forming a coalition with either the SPD or the Green Party first. Whatever the outcome, the German left parties may start rethinking an opposition tactic for the next election that goes beyond the well-tried SPD-Green partnership.

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