Germany’s “crisis” In praise of minority government

Germans are aflutter at the prospect of their first post-war minority government. They should keep calm and carry on. Or even try optimism.

Here is a partial list of Western democracies that have in recent years had minority governments: The Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland, and New Zealand. The Scandinavians seem at some point to have said a collective Skol to minority government: Norway, Sweden and Denmark have all had them. The Canadians are veritable aficionados: They have had a dozen minority governments at the federal level.

An unscientific glance across these countries reveals that none, so far, resembles the Weimar Republic. Swedish children are not building toy castles out of worthless krona. Kiwis are not beating each other up in the streets. The Irish occasionally do, but it would be rash to blame minority government. In neither Portugal nor Norway are Nazis on the verge of seizing power and launching wars of aggression. When these democracies do encounter a Nazi, such as Anders Behring Breivik, they put him in prison. Generally speaking, most humans on the planet would be lucky to live in any of these places.

What then explains the bizarre German panic this week about the mere suggestion of a minority government? Certainly, the collapse of four-way coalition talks -- fourteen minutes before midnight on Sunday, November 19 -- was unprecedented in post-war Germany. Never before had so many parties been involved in negotiations so complex, so acrid and so bereft of “trust”. Never since 1949 have Germans had to contemplate a parliament in stalemate, without a clear majority for a new chancellor.

Quelle: dpa
Still traumatic: Weimar.
(Source: dpa)

Germans have a well-deserved reputation of clinging pathologically to stability and order. This could explain part of their Angst. The word “crisis” even made the rounds. The federal president, for the first time since 1949, moved into political center-stage, summoning the leaders of the relevant partners to his seat in Berlin’s Bellevue Castle for a stern talking-to. Looming in the psychological backdrop, of course, is Weimar, when unstable minority governments and repeated snap elections helped doom democracy as such.

The upshot now is that the center-left Social Democrats have again come under intense pressure to renew their “grand coalition” with Chancellor Angela Merkel, for the sake of stability. But they are fed up with being Ms. Merkel’s understudies, which is why they had already ruled out another coalition with her on election night, September 24. Now their leader, Martin Schulz, is hanging on for dear life -- to his office and to his credibility. Germans weren’t crazy about the previous two grand coalitions. How exactly would a third delight them?

So Germans should take a second -- un-hysterical -- look at minority government. They could ask the Danes next door, for example. Or they could ask Hans-Werner Sinn, a German economist and freethinker. Or Werner Patzelt, a professor at the Technical University of Dresden, and an expert on comparative political systems.

Mr. Patzelt suggests that voters should begin by remembering that it was they who chose this particular parliament (and who, according to polls, would choose almost exactly the same again in a new election). That is not a crisis; it’s called democracy. Calling a new election just because Angela Merkel finds the result of the previous one inconvenient would be undemocratic.

It's fun to find majorities.

And what exactly was so great about that “stability” of recent years? It meant that Ms. Merkel governed with huge majorities (80 percent of seats) and without audible opposition. The Bundestag, says Mr. Patzelt, was in effect “denuded of substance”. The biggest decisions -- on whether and how to rescue the eurozone; or whether and how to allow refugees into the country -- were hardly even discussed in parliament, and instead forced through by the government. The resulting ennui and alienation among many voters in turn accelerated the rise of the populist fringes.

Preferable is this: a parliament that is a vibrant forum of democratic debate on the most pressing controversies of our time. Every argument would be cross-examined by representatives who are elected by the people and beholden more to their conscience than to their party whip. In real life, minority government is messier than this description. But it comes closer to the ideal than a grand coalition does.

In effect, minority government only means that the chancellor must seek ad hoc majorities for any and all legislation she wants to pass. Otherwise, the executive branch would keep governing as before, through its prodigious regulatory powers. Only when a law is needed, the chancellor must persuade most members of the Bundestag. This would become necessary at the latest when a new federal budget is passed; but it will usually be in the interests of the mainstream parties to “tolerate” the government in those votes, to avoid new elections that could punish them. All other undertakings -- another euro bail-out, say -- would rise or fall on their merits.

Minority government does have two drawbacks. It would complicate the government’s ability to pass major reforms, of the sort that economists say Germany urgently needs. Then again, the previous grand coalition was also unable to enact meaningful reform, so what’s really the difference?

Minority government could also weaken Angela Merkel as she negotiates in Brussels and further afield, for she must take every promise to foreigners back to an unpredictable Bundestag for affirmation. This will frustrate Paris, Rome or other capitals that often demand German “leadership”. But Germans have always been uncomfortable with this European debate about “German hegemony”. If Germany must lead, better to bring Germans along at every step. The best way to do that is through raucous dialogue in the Bundestag, followed by an honest vote.

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