The Transatlantic Dialogue Program of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom was delighted to welcome Manfred Richter, Treasurer and Member of the Executive Board of the Foundation, to a discussion on the current political situation in Germany.
After not reaching the 5% threshold in 2013, the FDP returned to the Federal Parliament after obtaining 10.7% of the vote in the 2017 federal election. This is the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany that a party has reentered Parliament after being voted out. The possibilities for coalition building were limited by arithmetic this time. In the federal elections of 2017, the CDU obtained 33% of votes, which was an overall loss of 8.5% from the previous election. The SPD had 20.5%. In contrast to these larger parties, the four smaller parties of the AfD, FDP, Green Party and the left-wing “Die Linke” all recieved a larger share of the vote than in the previous election.
Following the election, there were two options for forming the government coalition: either to continue with the “grand coalition” government of the CDU and SPD, or to attempt a new “Jamaica coalition” (after the parties’ yellow-green-black colors) that had not yet been attempted on the national level before, though currently exists on the state level. The negotiations for the Jamaica coalition between the CDU, the FDP and Green Party were ended because it became clear during the talks that each party’s divergent priorities would produce an unstable government. Even though political parties in Germany govern together in coalition, they remain competitors nonetheless. In order to create an effective coalition agreement, parties need to solve as many of their conflicts as possible at the beginning of the talks. Normally, coalition negotiations produce a contract that is politically binding. These contracts are public information, allowing anyone the ability to access and read the official document online, in order to hold politicians accountable.
There are different arguments about who is responsible for the dissolution of the Jamaica coalition talks. One view is that there was a lack of leadership from the Chancellor and that each party underestimated the challenges of this coalition. Another view is that the Green Party had taken a moralizing position on many issues, which the FDP rejected. From Manfred Richter’s point of view, the main reason why the negotiations were not successful was due to a lack of trust among the negotiating partners. Without trust, it is difficult to create a stable government. Despite the SPD’s pronouncement on election night to not form another coalition with the CDU/CSU, they eventually relented and created a “new-old” grand coalition. Neither of the two parties wished to pursue the option of dissolving parliament and holding new elections. Many believed that this would only strengthen the AfD and further weaken the established parties.
Although the same coalition between the CDU and SPD is currently in government, Manfred Richter stressed that “business as usual” will not be good enough. It is important to remember that Germany does not have natural resources that it exports; its main resources are industrial goods. Those goods are dependent on adhering to high technological standards and cultivating innovation in Germany. Therefore, Germany needs to spend more money on education, invest in talented minds as well as technological infrastructure, according to Richter. The problem for the Free Democratic Party during the coalition negotiations was that there was not enough discussion about these issues, and they were not the focus of concrete policy formation during the coalition agreement.
Manfred Richter also reminded the audience that there are two interesting state elections this year in Germany: Bavaria and Hessen. In Bavaria, a stronghold of the CSU, the FDP is typically not in the state legislature. But recent polls show the CSU losing its absolute majority, and therefore there is a great possibility that the CSU and FDP may form a coalition there. In Hessen, there is currently a two party government of CDU and Greens, but polls indicate that they will also lose their majority. This could create an opening for another Jamaica coalition on the state level, sending a positive message for coalition building on the federal level. Richter expressed hope that if the Jamaica coalition can function well at the state level, there is a greater possibility that it will one day work for the federal government.
Regarding the conflict between the Green Party and the FDP, each party will need to focus on facts rather than emotions. These parties often see the other as an enemy, but need to emphasize their common ground instead. The two parties combined have as many voters as the SPD, meaning cooperation between the FDP and the Greens could reach a wide swath of the electorate. While these parties may have different solutions to political problems, they need to have a more fact- and future-oriented approach to negotiating coalitions, in order to mitigate the continually changing political climate.
The current coalition is expected to last until the next federal election in 2021, unless the SPD falls below 30% in the polls. If that is the case, the SPD has the option to call for early elections.
Anne-Marie Simon, Program Assistant, Transatlantic Dialogue Program, Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.