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How long will Germany wait for a government?

October 10, 2017

The Netherlands finally has a new government, seven months after the election in March. There are similarities to the Dutch situation in Germany — but a key difference could make negotiations in Berlin even harder.

Angela Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Ah, parliamentary democracy. Where small parties stand a chance, representativeness beats winner-takes-all — and managing to get a government together can take the better half of a year after an election.

Germans are getting antsy because exploratory talks between potential coalition partners have yet to start, two weeks after the Bundestag election. But in the Netherlands, a new government presented its program on Tuesday, nearly seven months after the election on March 15. Seven months!

More than 200 days after the election, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte from the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) was finally able to share the agreement his party had reached with its three coalition partners, the progressive Democrats 66 (D66), the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the small Christian Union (CU). 

"All parties came with some last-minute wishes," Rutte told reporters on Tuesday. "But the government pact is now definitely ready."

Government formation without a deadline

While long coalition negotiations aren't unusual in the Netherlands, 209 days is a new record for the Dutch.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte
Rutte announced on Tuesday that all four parties had reached a government agreementImage: Getty Images/AFP/B. Czerwinski

"This is the longest it has ever taken to form a new government [in the Netherlands]," Markus Wilp, a political scientist at Münster University's Center for Dutch Studies, told DW. "But it could have gone on for longer still."

There is no deadline in the Netherlands when it comes to forming a government after a general election. The same is true for Germany.

The Bundestag has to have its first session, where all parliamentary parties come together and vote for the new parliament's president, no more than 30 days after the election. But in both Germany and the Netherlands, politicians can sit down in exploratory talks and coalition negotiations for however long it takes to form a new government.

That's a relief in the current political situation. Dutch politicians had made it clear they would consider it a failure if coalition talks didn't succeed and the Dutch had to go to the polls again.

But for Rutte, finding partners for a new government was anything but easy in a fragmented parliament with 13 parties represented, some with as little as two or three seats.

Read more: Dutch disarray: Rutte can't forge cabinet in Netherlands

Historic loss for former coalition partner

"It was relatively difficult this time around because the strongest party won just over 20 percent of the vote," said Wilp. "There are so many small and medium-sized parties in parliament and there wasn't a coalition that jumped out as immediately obvious."

With 21.3 percent of the votes in March, Rutte's VVD lost around 5 percent compared with the last general election in 2012. His previous partner, the Labour Party, lost 19 percent compared to the last election and announced they would go into the opposition — a step mirrored by Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) after their historic loss in last month's Bundestag vote.

Lacking the support of his former coalition partner, Rutte approached the Green Left party. But the two sides did not manage to come to an agreement, clashing over different views on immigration.

'Highly unusual' government

Rutte wasn't willing to form a coalition with the second-strongest party in the Dutch parliament, Geert Wilders' far-right Party for Freedom. That left him with the four-party coalition option.

"The Netherlands hasn't had a government made up of four parties for 40 years. It's highly unusual," said Wilp.

Even with four parties, the new government only has a one-seat majority in the Dutch parliament. But the fact that they managed to make enough compromises to come together is still quite a feat.

"They had large ideological differences in a variety of fields," said Wilp of the four parties. "There's the economically liberal VVD, the socially liberal and progressive D66, the Christian Democrats CDA and the orthodox-Protestant Christian Union."

Different political landscape in Germany

Four different parties from a variety of backgrounds who bridged their differences and formed a government — sounds like Germany could learn from the Netherlands.

Representatives from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) have said coalition negotiations could carry on into 2018, though in a recent interview with German magazine Focus, Merkel's chief of staff Peter Altmaier said he hoped coalition terms could be agreed on by Christmas.

"That's what I'm hoping for, but what's decisive is the substance, not the date," Altmaier said.

Read more: Germany's long road to building a government

After the last Bundestag election in 2013, it took 86 days for Merkel's government to form a coalition with the Social Democrats — a record for post-World War II Germany. That record could be exceeded this time, as Merkel's conservative CDU and their Bavarian Christian Social Union sister party (CSU), the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP) have differences on several points.

However, all three parties have signaled their willingness to compromise before the first round of negotiations, and the CDU-CSU are expected to start exploratory talks with the Greens and the economically liberal FDP next week to possibly form a so-called "Jamaica" coalition, a name which refers to the parties' colors.

New political chapter?

But Wilp explained that the political landscape in the Netherlands is quite different from Germany, where for years the Greens have been the preferred coalition partner of the Social Democrats, and the pro-business FDP was usually approached by the CDU/CSU.

"A 'Jamaica' coalition would be a new chapter, at least on the national level in Germany," said Wilp. "In the Netherlands, however, there is something of a tradition of being more open to coalitions with a variety of partners because the political landscape is more fragmented."

A previous "Jamaica" coalition was formed in the western German state of Saarland in 2009, but collapsed in 2012. The same formation took power in Schleswig-Holstein earlier this year after the state election in May.

There's something that the four parties in the Netherlands and the potential "Jamaica" partners in Germany have in common, however: enormous pressure on everyone involved to reach a compromise so that a government can actually be formed.

"It wasn't clear what the alternative would have been, had this not worked out [in the Netherlands]," said Wilp. "That pressure is similar to the situation German politicians find themselves in right now: 'This has got to work.'"

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker