Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pearls from Wells (with one small correction)

I am extremely thankful to Paul Wells for his insightful commentary on yesterday's German federal election:

The cheap talking point of the next few days in Ottawa will be that Germany just switched from a coalition of the centre-right and centre-left to a coalition of the centre-right and the slightly-righter, and nobody freaked out. It’s such a cheap talking point that I’ve already used it, tonight on CPAC. The slightly higher-value talking point is that this coalition didn’t advertise itself before the election. Angela Merkel’s choice of coalition partner remained her prerogative, and contingent on the returns, until after everyone had voted. So the Tom Flanagan argument, that coalitions should only be valid if they advertise their makeup before everyone gets to vote, wasn’t followed in Germany. And nobody’s freaking out.
In fact, I'm so thankful to him for saying this that I'm almost reluctant to say that he's not quite right. But he isn't quite right. It's absolutely true that the new German coalition partners didn't "advertise" their future coalition, but I follow German politics pretty closely, and what both big parties did do (and always do) is "signal" their desired coalition partners during the election. That's why a government could be formed right away instead of only much later, after lots of negotiation.

Here's how "signalling" works in Germany: The centre-right big tent party (the CDU) campaigns on their own and tries to win over as many people as they can. And the centre-left big tent party (the SPD) of course does the same. But at the same time, they also mention in their speeches and in interviews which other (usually smaller) party they each would most prefer to cooperate with in parliament. So the CDU, for example, will say something like this: "A strong CDU needs a strong coalition partner in the FDP!" and their supporters will cheer. And the SPD does the same with the Greens.

Sometimes, though, you get an election where it doesn't quite work out that way for either coalition (i.e. where the CDU and the FDP together don't add up to 50%, and the SPD and the Greens together don't add up to 50% either). This means that what the parties signalled ahead of time to the voters isn't going to be possible any way you stack it. And that's when the Germans do freak out a little bit. We know this very well, because it's exactly what happened during the Germans' last federal election in 2005, when both preferred coalitions fell short of 50%. Back then, after literally weeks of negotiation, the two big-tent parties finally decided to solve the problem by reluctantly forming a government together (what they call a "Grand Coalition", which is essentially the equivalent of the Canadian Conservatives and Liberals sitting on the same side of the aisle in the House of Commons and sharing cabinet posts and otherwise working as a unit). The German form of "freaking out" is closer to grumbling and moaning about why the voters didn't give one or the other of the preferred coalitions 50%, of course (rather than party leaders accusing other parties of treason and clueless idiots chanting in the streets about coups), but whenever parties end up having to form a coalition that didn't get signalled in advance, it's there all the same.

But the basic point behind what Wells said is 100% right, and that's that parties in Germany--and in the rest of the democratic world, for that matter--don't advertise together and run together as a block when they think there might be a particular coalition after the election. Why? Because that would be freaking presumptuous! It's up to the voters to determine which potential coalition governments can and can't form a majority, and nobody knows that for sure until after the election, once the voters have had a chance to have their say.


Greg said...

IP! IP! Yay!

Anonymous said...


Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Aw, thanks! But I'm not promising that there will be much more where this one came from. When you can't stick to your own tagline ("resisting the pull of cynicism" and all that), silence is golden.

ADHR said...

What Greg and Devin said.

Labhaois said...

So the German politicians campaign talking about what their party and they personally stand for, but they also say "of course we would also look to co-operate with the X party / other parties who value Y", and everyone knows what that means and nobody thinks it is "betrayal"? How sensible.

Wilf Day said...

Another message from Germany: how to change coalition partners.

In 1969 Willi Brandt formed an SPD/FDP coalition government. In 1972 some FDP deputies crossed the floor to the CDU, the government lost its majority, and early elections were called. Both the SPD and FDP increased their vote, and Brandt continued, then being replaced by Helmut Schmidt. The SPD/FDP coalition won the 1976 election as well (with a slight drop in support), and again in 1980 (when the FDP picked up 14 more seats).

In 1982 the FDP left the coalition, allied with the CDU, and the CDU/FDP coalition took office in the middle of a parliament (Michaëlle Jean take note). The FDP had wanted to radically liberalise the labour market.

The CDU/FDP coalition felt the lack of a mandate, since the FDP had switched sides. But Germany has fixed election dates. So Kohl had to take another controversial move: he called for a confidence vote only a month after being sworn in, in which members of his coalition abstained. The ostensibly negative result for Kohl then allowed President Karl Carstens to dissolve the Bundestag in January 1983. (Stephen Harper take note.)

The FDP stayed on the right ever since, and is well known as the CDU's preferred partner.

JG said...

Glad to see you back (and I can't blame you for the cynicism... if I see another Jane Taber article about internal Liberal Party politics, I don't know what I'll do).

Anonymous said...

She's Back!

Tyrone said...

I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on another point. The major story of the popular vote was a shift away from the SPD to the Left and Greens, who each scored record highs. Yet the leftward move of the electorate paradoxically resulted in a rightward shift in government.

Jae/Jennie said...


(This is IP under a different guise, btw)

I'm not sure if I'd agree that Germany shifted left. The more left-wing voters did switch their vote to the Left Party, but the more right-wing voters seem to have switched as well, to the Free Democrats. I think the real story in current-day German politics is the shift from the big-tent parties to the traditionally much smaller ones. After all, the Christian Democrats actually lost both percentage points and voters this time around--it was only by virtue of the Free Democrats doing surprisingly well that they could form their preferred coalition.

Wilf Day said...

Tyrone, the major story of the popular vote in Germany was the Social Democrats who stayed home:

Valid votes dropped from 47,287,988 in 2005 to 43,357,542 (down 3,930,446)

The SPD vote dropped from 16,194,665 to 9,988,843 (down 6,205,822)

The CDU/CSU vote dropped from 16,631,049 to 14,655,004 (down 1,976,045)

The FDP vote rose from 4,648,144 to 6,313,023 (up 1,664,879)

DIE LINKE rose from 4,118,194 to 5,153,884 (up 1,035,690)

The GRÜNE vote rose from 3,838,326 to 4,641,197 (up 802,871)

laura k said...

Yay, you're back!!! Hurrah.

MSS said...

[I do not know if this will appear 0, 1, or 2 times. Apologies if the latter. Blogger and I are not getting along, again.]

IP's general point is good, but a bit exaggerated in two ways. First of all, Merkel was pretty explicit about her preference for a coalition with the FDP. True, they did not actually form it till after the elections, but the parties came about as close to running jointly as they could without running jointly.

Second, the post understates how common actual joint campaigns and even coordinated nominations are in the world's democracies. Of course, they are more common in non-proportional systems, which buttresses the main point. For instance, the new government in Japan was pre-electoral (three parties with very explicit commitments to govern together if they won a majority of seats). India is another prominent case, with very clearly defined multi-party blocs.

Unknown said...

Welcome back!

Prorogation, BC STV defeat, IP going silent. All very sad and dispiriting.

Call yourself Cynical Pragmatist if you must, but please keep fighting/commenting.

MSS said...

One other qualification to the post and to my previous comment: the coalition in Germany has not formed yet. A few days after the election, the CDU/CSU and FDP jointly said they hoped to have a government formed within six weeks. Even though each knows it will form a coalition with the other, there is still bargaining to be done, and compromises to be made, on both personnel and policy.

rateldajer said...

I have put up an aggregator website trying to combine great bloggers talking about democratic reform. I'd love to add the feeds for your electoral reform and coalition government tags if you don't mind. Especially if you will be writing more in future on these topics, hope so!

The site is Democratic Reform in Canada.