With the Social Democrats, the opposition Union bloc and likely minority coalition partners running neck-and-neck, voters face at least four different government coalition possibilities in Sunday's cliffhanger vote.
With little breathing room in current polls, almost all of Germany's major parties have a plausible chance of joining the next government.
In recent weeks, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has pulled off a feat few would have thought possible only a few weeks ago – he has pulled his party, which was trailing the opposition by nine percentage points in public opinion polls as recently as May, into the lead. Increasingly, it looks as if his party, the Social Democrats, will win enough seats to ensure Schröder’s reelection as chancellor.
Less certain is whether he will be joined in parliament by Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Polls suggest the Social Democrats and Fischer’s party, the Greens, may fail to garner enough votes to guarantee an SPD-Green majority in parliament. If eastern Germany’s former communist party, the Party for Democratic Socialism, clears the five-percent hurdle to enter the Bundestag, the Greens’ chances would be greatly diminished.
PDS Chairwomen Gabi Zimmer
And that’s the question consuming the political dialogue as Germans head for the polls this weekend. No party in the country’s 53-year history has ever won enough votes to gain a singular majority in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Thus, the secondary question after who will become the next chancellor is always which parties will secure enough votes to form a government coalition.
Based on current polls – which show the SPD attracting about 38.5 percent of voters and the Greens 8.5 percent – the parties together would not clear the 50 percent hurdle. Nor does it seem likely that they will, with less than seven days to go before Germans head to the polls. The PDS is currently hovering at 4.7 percent, just a few points shy of the magic five-percent mark.
But Schröder (photo), with his recent unbudging stance against German participation in a U.S.-led military engagement with Iraq, has actively sought to woo pacifist voters away from the traditional dovish PDS, and more could flock to the Greens or the Social Democrats before Sunday. If they do, the SPD and Greens would be able to build a second government. If not, the waters become muddier.
Schröder's four possible weddings
Depending on Sunday’s outcome, there are currently four options available to the SPD if it wins. With a little electoral luck, Schröder could continue with the current government. Without it, he could create a three-way coalition with the Greens and PDS. He could also build a three-way coalition between the SPD, Greens and the market-friendly liberals, the Free Democratic Party. Last but not least, he could enter into an unlikely "grand coalition" with the conservative opposition Union bloc.
With a few exceptions, it seems like strange bedfellows all around.
So far, Schröder has categorically rejected the possibility of building a coalition with the PDS, which he has described as unreliable because of its unflinching anti-war stance. Most recently, PDS members of parliament angered SPD leaders by voting against a NATO mission to Afghanistan.
This should not be confused with the government's outspoken criticism of U.S. demands that the war on terror be expanded into Iraq. Instead, the SPD has clashed with the PDS over what the government argues is the PDS' unwillingness to step up to the challenge of Germany's military obligations for peacekeeping and other duties of the international community in war-torn regions like the Balkans and Afghanistan.
Stoiber: "I don't want a grand coalition"
Although Schröder has said the PDS is the only party he would be unwilling to govern with, he hasn't ruled out the possibility of governing in conjunction with the other parties represented in the Bundestag.
"With the exception of the PDS ... the parties represented in the Bundestag should, in principal, be capable of working together in a coalition," he said at the last nationally televised chancellor debate. But he also dismissed the question as "purely theoretical."
Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber (photo), on the other hand, has flatly ruled out the possibility of a grand coalition. "I don’t want a grand coalition because it won’t bring the solutions that we need," he said at the same debate.
The first and last time Germans agreed to a grand coalition was in 1966, when the FDP dropped out of the government and the ruling CDU asked the SPD to join it in governing the country. At the time, both unemployment and right-wing sentiment were rising in the country, and the parties sought to establish greater stability.
Meanwhile, a "traffic light" coalition between the FDP, the SPD and the Greens -- so-named for the colors which Germans bestow on their political parties -- also seems implausible. FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle (photo) has said he would not participate in a coalition government with the Greens. But he has expressed a willingness to negotiate with both the opposition Union block and the Social Democrats to determine the best partner for the FDP.
Any coalition other than the SPD and the Greens or the SPD, Greens and PDS, would likely result in a major change of course for the government.
A political shotgun wedding
Significant differences between the SPD and CDU on immigration, labor and tax policies would make producing results difficult under a grand coalition. It could also imperil the country’s first immigration law, passed earlier this year by the SPD-Green government, and make it difficult for Gerhard Schröder to implement the labor market reform plan proposed this summer by an independent commission chaired by a Volkswagen executive.
The laissez faire Free Democrats, meanwhile, would likely clash with a Schröder-led government over the government’s appetite for intervening when Germany’s flagship companies become imperiled or fail, like the Holzmann construction company, engineering giant Babcock Borsig or, most recently, telecommunications behemoth MobilCom. The FDP would also push for tax cuts – a position for which it would be difficult to drum up support among the Social Democrats or Greens. Still, aware of his newfound power in recent days, the FDP's Westerwelle has said he would be willing to negotiate with both the SPD and the Union bloc.
Of course, there’s still a chance the opposition Union block and the FDP, with its current eight percent in most polls, could win the election and form a black-yellow coalition. The two parties’ policy proposals in the areas of tax cuts, labor market reforms and support for military intervention in Iraq under a United Nations mandate could lead to considerable unity between the FDP and CDU. And that's something the Union parties' joint chancellor candidate is still banking on.
"It's going to be a close race, but we'll definitely beat the SPD," Edmund Stoiber told the cable news channel N24 on Tuesday. But with the Union bloc down 3.5 points in the latest poll, Stoiber may have to look forward to another four years in the opposition.