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.