On the way to a Grand Coalition (election story continued)

As I have written before, Angela Merkel and her right-leaning Christian Democrats (CDU) won the most votes in Germany’s election on 22nd September. 10 weeks have now passed, and still a new government is yet to be formed. From a British perspective, it seems to be taking a very very long time (the current coalition government in Britain was formed in about 5 days in May 2010). But in Germany, this lengthy process of forming a government is far from surprising.

Having failed to win an absolute majority (they got 41.5% of the vote), it was clear back in September that the CDU (along with their Bavarian sister party, CSU) for the sake of stable government would have to form a coalition with another political party. Coalitions are not unusual in Germany; indeed all governments since 1946 having been formed of two or more parties. Past experience of coalition negotiations (the negotiations for the Grand Coalition in 2005, also under Merkel, lasted two months) and the fact that the CDU’s most obvious (and existing coalition) partner, the right-leaing, economic liberals, the FDP, failed to get the prerequisite proportion of votes to have any politicians in parliament, suggested that this time round talks might take even longer.

First of all, the CDU and CSU had to find a coalition partner. After initial conversations with both the SPD (the major left-leaning political party in Germany and the biggest opposition to the CDU) and the Green Party (die Gruene), it was announced by both sides that a so-called Grand Coalition (Grosse Koalition) of the two major parties – the CDU and the SPD – could work. It was not certain in September when the election results first came in that this would be the case. During the election campaign, the SPD had categorically ruled out the possibility of a Grand Coalition, having had their fingers severely burned as the junior partner in a previous Grand Coalition under Merkel between 2005 and 2009. The political aftermath of the 2005 Grand Coalition has not been straightforward for the SPD, suffering ongoing political losses on a national and Land (district) level ever since, whether as a direct result or not.

But the first set of coalition talks must have been reassuring enough for the SPD, as it was duly announced a few weeks later, that the policy negotiations for a potential Grand Coalition would now get underway. Because that’s the other thing about coalition government forming in Germany. Not only do the two parties have to decide to work together, they also then have to draft and sign an exceedingly detailed Koalitionsvertrag (coalition agreement) fleshing out the joint policy intentions for the forthcoming administrative period. Also time consuming, as you can imagine.

From the view of an outsider, the task of producing a comprehensive programme of everything that will be undertaken by a government over the next four years seems mammoth, especially as many of the policy decisions they need to make are on contentious issues on which the two parties have wildly different views. So how on earth do they go about beating a common path for the future government? Through lots of lengthy conversations and negotiations, it turns out. 75 politicians from both parties meet weekly to discuss the really big issues, whilst in the background dozens of smaller and more focused working groups map out the nitty gritty. Daily in the news various negotiation break-throughs are announced: on the Frauenquote, the level of Elterngeld, Germany’s position in Europe ….

To make negotiations even more complicated, however, the SPD have announced that any finalised coalition agreement must be approved in a vote by their wider party members. This has the effect that each policy agreement has to carry the popular sentiment of the SPD (from their left to their right party flank) with it. They’ll want to see real compromises on the part of the CDU, and key SPD election promises, such as a minimum wage, more equality in education, the right for gay couples to adopt children, included in any final document.

The politicians have said that they hope to have the coalition agreement finalised by the end of November – after all, they’ve only got to still agree on the minimum wage, pensions and double citizenship (not that easy if you believe the German press). After that, there’s only the simple (or not!) question of deciding who will hold which cabinet post, and let’s not forget, successfully getting the SPD party stamp of approval. And there you have it, the new Grand Coalition government, freshly printed copies of the coalition agreement in hand, will take their new desks, organise their staffs around them and finally get down to the real work. If talks fall at any of the many final hurdles, there is always the Green Party waiting in the wings, ready to start their own set of coalition talks right from the very beginning.

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