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Coalition quandry

Greta Hamann / gswOctober 4, 2013

On October 22, the parliament Germany elected on September 22 will come together for the first time. As government coalition talks get underway, it is clear that many questions remain before a chancellor can be chosen.

A photo with red and green arrows symbolizes the coalition talks Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The Free Democrats (FDP) are no longer in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, but they are still part of the government. Until the new Bundestag officially votes in its chancellor for the new legislative session, the current governing coalition between Chancellor Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the FDP will remain in power.

The way things look now, that government is likely to continue leading the country for some time. Germany's recent federal elections almost gave the CDU and sister party CSU a majority in parliament, but the center-right parties fell just a few seats short. With the FDP out, Merkel's party is looking to form a coalition with one of two left-leaning parties: the Greens or the Social Democrats (SPD).

Social Democrat skepticism

The winners of the September 22 election, the CDU/CSU, would prefer a coalition with the SPD, but that feeling isn't mutual. There are doubts as to whether such a partnership can come about at all in the current political climate. On Friday (04.10.2013), representatives from the CDU/CSU and SPD meet for the first time for negotiations on a possible coalition.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, talks to former Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel (ddp images/AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
SPD head Sigmar Gabriel (r) was part of Merkel's cabinet from 2005 to 2009Image: AP

If they reach an agreement, it would be a repeat of the legislative period from 2005 to 2009, when the two parties, Germany's largest, formed a grand coalition. After those four years, the SPD recorded its worst outcome at the polls in the modern political era.

For that reason, many Social Democrats remain skeptical of a coalition with Merkel's powerful party. The party base may be called upon to decide whether its leaders should pursue seats in the government.

Greens a possible partner

A different round of negotiations are set to take place on Thursday next week between the Green party and the CDU/CSU. If the two parties agree to a coalition, it would be their first at the federal level.

Political scientist Oscar Niedermayer believes nothing will come of the talks between the two. And party researcher Wichard Woyke agrees. "It would be very difficult to explain that to Green party members. During the election campaign, the CDU/CSU were depicted as a kind of enemy," he said.

An entirely different coalition is also possible, mathematically speaking at least. The Left party could join together with the Greens and the SPD. But most commentators dismiss it as theoretical at best.

"It's a very improbable option because the SPD and the Greens ruled out a coalition with the Left party before the election, and they can't turn back on that now," Woyke said. He believes the Left party is scarcely suited to a position in the government in light of some of its highly controversial and difficult to finance campaign pledges.

Back to the polls?

"If nothing at all works, then the president must step in," explains Oscar Niedermayer. On October 22, the new Bundestag will meet for the first time as is required by law. But parliament does not have to vote on its chancellor on that date. President Joachim Gauck can petition Angela Merkel to remain in office until coalition negotiations have been completed.

Baden-Württemberg's Green Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann, pictured with Angela Merkel REUTERS/Michael Dalder
Baden-Württemberg's Green Prime Minister Winfried Kretschmann, pictured with Merkel, is more business-friendly than the rest of his partyImage: Reuters

If no coalition emerges, the president is permitted to suggest a chancellor candidate himself. That candidate could ultimately be voted into office with a simple plurality. He or she would then be the head of a government without its own majority in parliament.

A government without a majority has its hands tied, making political reform almost impossible. As such, Angela Merkel has already ruled out this option. And the political expert Woyke agrees, saying that in light of Germany's key role internationally, it cannot afford such an unstable situation at home.

If no stable government can be formed, then the president can also call for a new round of voting. German voters would need to return to polls and mark their ballots once again.

But most analysts believe it's unlikely that a second election will take place. The CDU/CSU are seeking a coalition, and its potential partners fear the probability that new votes would result in even more seats for Merkel's party. A grand coalition between the SPD and the CDU/CSU remains the most likely outcome after Friday's talks.

While coalition talks have gone on for up to 13 months in neighboring Belgium, for example, Woyke believes Germany's political class knows the country can't afford to tarry for long.