Building a new German coalition government won’t be easy — here’s why

German politics just got interesting. In Sunday’s national election, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) came out best with 33 percent of the vote, but an 8.5 percentage point drop in support from the 2013 election leaves the party battered and bruised.

The party that governed with the CDU, the Social Democrats (SPD), performed even worse, pulling only 20.5 percent of the vote. That’s an unmitigated disaster for Germany’s oldest political party.

Throw in strong performances by a range of smaller parties on the left (Die Linke, 9.2 percent) and in the center (the Greens, 8.9 percent, and the Free Democrats, 10.7 percent) and an upstart far-right party (the Alternative for Germany (AfD), with 12.6 percent) — and much of Germany woke up Monday asking: What happens next?

Predicting who governs with whom

The answer to that big question is not straightforward. Germany is a parliamentary democracy, and lawmakers in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, will come together to vote both for the government and, subsequently, the chancellor. Given that no party possesses 50 percent of the seats, that means two (or more) parties will have to work together.

Political scientists have spent a lot of time thinking about which parties are likely to work together in situations such as this. An often complex and at times contradictory body of work argues that three things are important if parties are going to come together and work as one in government:

1) The numbers matter. In practice, that often means that the smallest number of parties that can get a parliamentary majority club together to form the government do so.

2) Partners need to have some connections. In reality, the numbers are a starting point, but they are rarely the end point. Just because a coalition is numerically possible doesn’t mean it is practically possible. Policy matters. There, therefore, needs to be a degree of policy connectedness among the actors in question.

3) And the politics matter, of course. Even when the policy alignments look strong, some coalitions still don’t come to pass. Why? Because politics matters, too. That can come in the form of personality clashes, or it can come in the shape of historical issues that simply make collaboration difficult. This was evident in Germany a decade ago, when the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens were part of majority governments, but personality issues played a significant role in preventing them from working together.

Germany appears to have two coalition options moving forward

First, Merkel could form a three-party coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats. The three parties will certainly have a clear majority in the next Parliament, and they are broadly aligned on the political spectrum.

However, that alignment glosses over some deep-rooted policy differences, particularly around the areas of environmental protection, immigration policy and taxes. Both the Greens and the Free Democrats will also feel emboldened by their strong election results and less inclined to forge difficult compromises with each other. Both will look for some real red (policy) meat to throw to their respective bases.

Plus, the Greens and Free Democrats have historically spent more time growling at each other than working together. Cobbling together an agreement they can all sign on to will not be easy.

A second option looks even more challenging for Merkel, if for different reasons. The CDU could reconvene the current government by calling on the Social Democrats again. Over the past four years, these two parties, the largest groups in Parliament, have worked together, largely because there was no other two-party coalition option available.

Both parties, however, suffered electoral defeats Sunday, and the SPD in particular needs time to regroup. The parties, nonetheless, do have more than enough seats to govern, and they are certainly programmatically close enough to work together. Their past four years in power have certainly proved that.

But the SPD’s 2017 results were nothing short of a disaster

The SPD, nonetheless, has ruled this option out. The SPD is well aware that Merkel has proved very adept at cuddling her allies just a little too closely — leaving partners with a struggle to profile themselves when the next elections come around. The SPD’s 20 percent vote share Sunday is not only a historical low for the party; it is a clear sign the party needs to go into opposition, renew itself and begin the job of explaining how it differs from the CDU. Even when the dust settles, the chances of the SPD immediately considering another spell in government are very slim.

The other options out there — the CDU could, say, look to form a coalition with the Free Democrats and the AfD — remain practically and politically complete nonstarters. The policy differences are too great, and the personality issues too deep.

Now what happens?

There is an assumption that politicians always do whatever they can to cling on to power. The real world of politics is much more complicated than that. All of Merkel’s potential coalition partners either have policy red lines they won’t cross or political reasons for simply refusing to countenance going (back) into power.

There will certainly be plenty of discussions over the next few days about whether these two coalition options can somehow work. But don’t write one further option out of the equation: Germans might simply end up having to go through the whole rigmarole of voting for their Parliament again much sooner than they might have expected to.

To make that happen, Merkel will have to engineer a vote of confidence in her governmental team in the Bundestag and then lose it. That would be an unusual event and would require quite a lot of stage managing. It wouldn’t, however, be unprecedented; Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of the SPD managed to do that in 2005.

Given the serious obstacles in the way of both possible coalitions, it is feasible that neither ultimately works. Indeed, the wise money might well best be put on new elections in Germany happening much sooner than expected.

Dan Hough is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex and chair of the International Association for the Study of German Politics.

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