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26 September 2017
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The German Coalition-Building Example: Fact vs. Fiction

The “German example” of parliamentary coalition building repeatedly has been suggested by Our Ukraine as a model for the creation of the proposed “orange” coalition. However, a close examination reveals that Germany’s example differs significantly from the way in which some political leaders have portrayed it. 

In recent weeks, the “German example” of parliamentary coalition building repeatedly has been suggested as a model for the creation of the proposed “orange” coalition involving President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine, The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and The Socialist Party.  The suggestions have come largely from members of Our Ukraine, who would like to put off discussions on naming a prime minister and believe that Germany’s example supports their position.  The President in particular has pointed to Germany as providing potentially useful lessons for political leaders now attempting to form a government.

In fact, it is useful to examine the negotiating process that led to the current Merkel government and a stable ruling coalition in Germany.  However, a close examination of this process reveals that it differs significantly from the way in which some political leaders have portrayed it. 

1) Before beginning formal coalition talks, personnel decisions were made and announced publicly. 

In Germany, after the 18 September elections, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) finished within one point of each other, providing the CDU with just four seats more than the SPD.

Despite the slim plurality, however, Merkel immediately claimed the right to lead the country.  "It is up to us to build a government," she said.   It soon became clear that Schroeder’s Social Democrats would be the most natural ideological union with Merkel’s party, in spite of differences over economic policy.  But Merkel’s party had one condition.   "There will be no coalition talks if it is not clear that Ms Merkel will be chancellor," CDU General Secretary Volker Kauder said.

 

General exploratory discussions dragged on for two weeks, as Schroeder refused to give in on the choice of Chancellor.  On 5 October, Juergen Ruettgers, the CDU leader of the powerful state of North Rhine-Westphalia reiterated, “We will not start coalition talks until they accept the democratic principle that the biggest party nominates the head of government.”

Kauder agreed.  "There will be no negotiations on the issues if the Social Democrats do not accept that our candidate will be chancellor," he said.

In response, the Social Democrat’s Franz Muentefering said, "Only when we enter serious negotiations can we discuss such issues. Beforehand it is simply not possible."

But Merkel’s party did not back down.  "Either we have a woman chancellor or the talks fail," Guenther Beckstein, the interior minister of the conservative-run state of Bavaria, said on 7 October. 

On 11 October, three weeks after the election, Merkel finally announced, “"We have decided that I will be chancellor.”  In return, her party had agreed to give 8 of 14 cabinet posts to Schroeder’s Social Democratic Party.  

In response, The Financial Times wrote, “Yesterday`s announcement that Angela Merkel would become chancellor removed the biggest question mark hanging over the political future of Germany. … Beginning next Monday, Ms Merkel`s Christian Democratic Union and its rival, the Social Democratic party, will start to draft a detailed programme covering all aspects of government work - fiscal, labour market, economic and foreign policies. An agreement is expected on November 12.”

So, the suggestion by Our Ukraine that the program came before the naming of the Chancellor in Germany does not correspond to the facts.  In reality, Chancellor Merkel insisted on her position and refused to discuss the issues of the program until after her demand was met.

Eventually, even though his party finished within one point of Merkel’s, Schroeder was forced to concede to the “bigger” party.  Today in Ukraine, over a month after the election, Our Ukraine still fights for the premiership, despite finishing over eight points behind what would be the biggest party in the coalition.

2)  A coalition was built on ideological grounds and, in the end, was the only option.

There is no question that the CDU and the SPD have sharp differences over economic reform.  Merkel’s CDU favors more radical reform while the SPD favors a gradual, far smaller level of reform in areas like the tax code, the banking industry and the labor market. 

However, the two parties were unable to come to terms with other, smaller German parties, most of which have a more defined ideological focus.   Almost immediately following the election, the New Left Party, which won almost nine percent of the vote and includes former East German Communists, ruled out joining any coalition.  So, too, the environmental Green Party, which won eight percent, and the conservative Free Democrats with 10 percent.   Merkel and Schroeder’s parties won roughly 35% and 34%, respectively.  Therefore, the only choice for the two major parties was to join together. 

Even more, in exploratory talks the two blocs discovered that their views on how a country should be governed overlapped, allowing them to come to terms on specific issues after significant bargaining.

3) The coalition was built on a detailed program of action. 

Following the announcement of the Chancellor, the Christian Democratic Union, The Social Democratic Party and CDU ally the Christian Social Union, drafted a detailed program that Merkel and her ministers must follow.  It is over 100 pages and was developed over a month of daily, often grueling discussions.  It was the result of significant compromises on both sides, and commits the partners to specific policies on everything from nuclear power to taxes to the labor code. 

The program limits Merkel’s room to maneuver in many instances, but also blunts the ability of the SPD to criticize her actions if she stays within the program.  Both parties are equally responsible for the successes – and the failures – of the program. 

The Tymoshenko Bloc so far has rejected this type of detailed program.  But just as the lessons of Germany suggest that there can be little progress in coalition talks until the head of government is named, they suggest that a detailed well thought-out program can provide stability and protect all partners from accusations of grand-standing. 

This assumes, of course, that all members of all coalition political parties agree to support both the chosen head of government and the president.  They must also do their best to implement the agreed-upon program.  In the German scenario, competing centers of power within the government and unclear distribution of authority do not exist. 

So the “German example” does have much to teach Ukraine’s politicians.   The question now is whether these politicians are interested in learning the true lessons provided.  

By Tammy Lynch

Senior Fellow

Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology & Policy

Boston University, USA

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