Now that the shocking results are in, it’s safe to say that my prediction from yesterday has a pretty good chance of coming true. That was that Germany would get its first ever federal minority government1, and that it would be formed by Union (CDU/CSU) and the FDP. It all depends on inter-party negotiations from here, of course, but the raw numbers make a pretty strong case for it.
Here are the factors:
- Union (CDU/CSU) – Merkel’s party – came in first but lost more seats than it pretty much ever has. It wasn’t its lowest result since 1949, but it’s pretty damn close.
- The SPD – current coalition partner of Merkel’s government – lost a lot of seats as well. Although it is possible to recreate the current "Grand Coalition" – Union and SPD have a 44-seat majority between them – it would be a bruised government. More to the point, the fact that the SPD just polled its worst result since the days of the Weimar Republic means they’re really taking the message to heart that governing in coalition with Merkel has destroyed their credibility. Martin Schultz mentioned in his concession speech that he had recommended to the party central committee that they not participate in government this time.
- The AfD – "Alternative for Germany," basically Germany’s Trump party – polled at an impressive 13%, putting it in third place, and giving it 95 seats in the Bundestag. It is the first time since the German Party (Deutsche Partei) propped up Adenauer’s first government in 1949 with its meager 4% of the vote2 that anything resembling the far right or right-wing populism has been in the Bundestag.
- The FDP – the (classical) liberal party, frequent member of coalition governments in Bundesrepublik Germany – did well, gaining nearly 11% of the vote, and the Greens – although making some gains – less well. That means there is enough to form a so-called "Jamaica Coalition" (Black-Yellow-Green/Union-FDP-Green), which would be 34 seats over the majority. A Union-FDP minority government would be 32 seats shy of a majority.
- There are not enough votes to form either a "Traffic Light Coalition" (SPD-FDP-Green/Red-Yellow-Green) or a "Red-Red-Green Coalition" (SPD-Die Linke-Green). So, the SPD simply has no option to enter government but forming a coalition with Union.
The X factor in the whole thing is the unexpectedly strong showing of the AfD. The AfD will not work with Merkel, having said instead that they will "hunt her down" in parliament this term – so even if she wanted to form a Union-FDP-AfD coalition, it’s almost certainly not on offer. But never mind, because she – and every other party in the Bundestag – have categorically ruled out forming coalitions with the AfD. But that throws a bit of a wrench in the works, because it means that if the SPD and Union form another Grand Coalition, the AfD, as the third-place finisher, would be the official opposition, getting the right of first response to government announcements – essentially getting a bully pulpit. The SPD has already ruled out participation in another Grand Coalition (and since Schultz has indicated that he will not be stepping down as party leader despite the miserable result, that promise seems likely to hold), and this fact seems likely to keep them from reconsidering.
So, barring another Grand Coalition, the only possibility for a majority government is the "Jamaica Coalition" of Union, FDP and the Green Party. While such a coalition government has existed at the state level (twice – in Saarland from 2009-2012 and currently in Schleswig-Holstein just this year), it’s an extremely awkward arrangement. The only reason it happened in Saarland was to prevent an SPD minority government with Die Linke (The Left Party), which would’ve been weak, in addition to trying to govern with an extremist party, and it collapsed in less than three years. Whether it will work out in Schleswig-Holstein remains to be seen. It seems likely to be unworkable at the federal level. But you never know – the Green Party has moderated a lot in recent years, so however tedious it would be to try to form a workable agenda with the philosophically incompatible Greens and Liberals, it would be stupid to dismiss the possiblity out of hand.
In the likely event the Jamaica Coalition proves unworkable (or is never even attempted), the only remaining possiblity that seems at all realistic is the one I suggested: a minority government of Union and FDP. Granted – the FDP doesn’t want to form another coalition with Merkel any more than the SPD does. Both parties have suffered greatly as a consequence of doing that (the FDP had to sit out the last Bundestag after failing to reach the 5% threshold, and the SPD, as mentioned, just polled its worst result since the 1920s). But there’re two important differences between the SPD and the FDP that make the prospect more appealing for the FDP. First: ideology. The FDP – as a pro-business classical liberal party – is the natural ideological partner for a center-right Union government. Second: relative strength. The SPD is supposed to be and traditionally has been the "electable" party on the left – one of the two big parties in Germany’s "two plus four" party system. The SPD lost credibility in coalition because "Mutti" kept co-opting its platform, and its voters didn’t see the point anymore of voting for what’s supposed to be a major opposition party that’s ideologically compromised by not only working with the enemy, but generally not pursuing policies that the enemy even objects to. Merkel has a black magic way of taking other people’s suggestions and making them her own. By contrast, when you are, like the FDP, one of the minor parties which has scant hope of forming government on its own, no such calculation applies. The FDP got burned in 2013 because Merkel looked weak, and strategic voters abandoned them to prop her up. So, you could say that the FDP’s experience doesn’t so much remind their voters not to form coalitions with Merkel as it does remind them that they have to exist in the first place to influence the coalition.
Now, a Union-FDP government would be 32 seats short of a majority – a serious gap. It would be an extremely weak government to be sure. But let’s be honest – so would a Jamaica Coalition. So how to choose between these alternatives?
Really, it comes down to party-internal power struggles that are out of voters hands. Merkel will favor the Jamaica option, because after Union’s dismal showing means there is an opening from malcontents on the right of her party who believe she has dragged the party too far left to challenge her. This is especially so in light of the fact that a lot of the party’s loss will turn out to have been because the AfD was able to capture their right flank – especially on the immigration issue. In a Jamaica Coalition, she always has the defense that she is just doing what the coalition demands. There is less cover for her left-moderate drift without the Greens. By that same token, of course, the conservative wing of the party will favor the minority government. Since that is what one suspects the FDP would also prefer, I think it will probably be decisive. Change is in the air, and it doesn’t seem likely that Merkel is going to get a fifth term. Probably, she also doesn’t want one. All the more reason this decision seems likely to be made with an eye to party internal struggles over what kind of party Union is going to be going forward. My money’s on the conservative faction.
So, I stand by my prediction. It is, of course, much to early to tell what will happen; it all depends on things decided out of public sight. But the results certainly make it look likely.
Union-FDP minority government – the first federal minority government in the BRD. Don’t count on it necessarily, but don’t be surprised when it happens. 30 days and counting till we know for sure.