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Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats could still lose. It all comes down to the maths

21 August 2013

Just over a month before election day, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are in a commanding position. The latest polls give them over 40 per cent support – fully 16 points ahead of main rivals the Social Democrats (SPD). You might think they’d have little to worry about. However, Germany’s electoral system is so scattered with technical and arithmetical traps that they are not safe yet.

Five per cent is a magical figure in German politics. Like many of its other national institutions, the voting system was designed with the country’s previous sins in mind; it is essentially proportional representation, but to stifle the rise of extremists, a party must gain 5 per cent of the popular vote to be awarded any seats. That leads to strange happenings around this critical threshold.

The CDU’s want to keep power with current partners the Free Democrats (FDP), but they fear the FDP will fail to breach 5 per cent, leaving them without an ally on the right. Then in January, an alternative nightmare played out for them in the Lower Saxony’s regional election. Trying to keep their partners in parliament, too many CDU supporters defected in order to vote tactically for the FDP. The SPD-led opposition defied polling predictions to sneak in by a few hundred votes.

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Even if the CDU can steer between these two disasters, victory isn’t assured. On current polling the FDP would win seats, but with 47 per cent the coalition would fall short of a majority. For a chance of a left-wing government, the SPD and Greens would have to combine with The Left Party, the successors and remnants of the East German communists – such a ‘red-red-green’ coalition would currently stand at 45 per cent, but would be deeply controversial.

Then there’s the imposing yet strangely mute prospect of a grand coalition between CDU and SPD. For months it’s seemed like the likeliest outcome. Yet the parties themselves have been extremely quiet about it, fearing upsetting their traditional partners, or weakening their negotiating positions later. Only really in the past week have they, grudgingly, admitted it as an option. Even then, both were determinedly cool on the idea: ‘Nobody wants that,’ Mrs Merkel said.

But she’s quite wrong. Politicians are wary of a grand coalition, but among voters it’s the most popular combination, considerably more so than what either side says it wants.

And so a contest with a clear leader and devoid (so far) of dramatic swings still conceals much tension. The FPD are nudging over the 5 per cent mark, though their position is precarious. The Pirate Party, a colourful but hapless bunch, short of a late surge, seem likely to fall short and merely draw votes away from the main parties. The same goes for anti-Euro protest party AfD.  All the while,
the biggest parties know they will probably end up in the grand coalition the electorate seems to want, but compete to be the most indifferent about it.

For some fearful Christian Democrats, not even this apparent success would give them peace of mind. Already, figures in the party are pre-emptively accusing the SPD of wanting a grand coalition, in order for it to then fail.

Coalition politics is a convoluted and exhausting business. But those here who believe predictions the British system is destined for more of it may wish to take some notes.

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  • Bob Hutton

    No, it doesn’t all come down to the maths. It all comes down to the sovereignty of God. In the New Testament we are told that God appoints (not merely allows) the “powers that be”. We read this in Romans 13 v 1

    • swatnan

      What have the Romans got to do with it? Their Empire collapsed 2000 years ago. And God is wise enough to stay out of politics.

  • David B

    As the Electorate found out you need to carefull what you wish for because you just might get it. Lets hope we stick with FPTP and get strong one party governments

    • Daragh McDowell

      Gosh yes, that whole ‘democracy’ thing really is tiresome. Much better that we have one party, one leader, one nation… Don’t know WHY the Germans don’t get that.

      • David B

        I did not say a one party state I said one party government which is VERY different. It’s clear that the deals done in the dark smoke filled rooms after an inconclusive election results in government program that no one voted for and satisfy only the negotiators

        The grand coalition in Germany sounds like a plan to do nothing. Two parties that disagree on fundamental economic direction will not work well during tough economic times. Just because the public think its a good idea does not make it workable.

  • swatnan

    I’d like to see another Grand Coalition. It seems the only way the SDP will ever get back into a Govt. Once in power sharing they might begin to sort themselves out and at the next election form a creditable Govt. Or they might not.

  • DWWolds

    There is an article on Der Spiegel’s website claiming that the Euro crisis has “saved Germany 40 billion euros” and “Meanwhile, the crisis has only cost Germany a mere 599 million euros so far”. Nice profit for some. Pity about Greece and Spain.

  • dalai guevara

    Isn’t it curious – in a multi party state like Germany, the outcome of the election will produce a clear winner, whereas in the two party state we live in, elections (largely due to our system) lead to disaster.

    • HookesLaw

      Germany is not a multi party state.
      There are two main parties (to be fair one of them is a partnership with a regional sub-party) and 1 small one which tries to be permanently in a coalition with the other two.

      • dalai guevara

        The Greens run (!) the manufacturing hub that is Baden Wuerttemberg. And the Liberals are not, as many would believe, on their last legs.

        • HookesLaw

          The SNP run Scotland.

          • Wessex Man

            Hooky, what are you saying you naughty man you!

        • Daniel Maris

          The FDP were not really liberals. They were a vehicle for a lot of old Nazis who were not welcome in the parties that had been part of the opposition to Hitler.

          The German parliamentary system is a good one as it mixes constituency representation with proportional representation.

          • dalai guevara

            Genschman was not in any way a representative of that sort.

            • Daniel Maris

              The FDP was a strange mix of real liberals, ex Nazis and business interests.

              • dalai guevara

                Remind me, when did Otto Graf Lambsdorff die.
                ‘Remembrance Responsibilty Future’

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