Would a Minority Government in Germany Really be So Bad?

photo by Davor Cengija

There has been much hand-wringing at the prospect of snap elections or minority governance in Germany, but Andrea Römmele argues that a minority government might be just what the country needs.

To say that Germany has been in a state of crisis since its federal elections on 24 September is a great exaggeration. The unsuccessful coalition talks aiming to build a historic “Jamaica” coalition—so called because the colours of the participating parties match those of the Jamaican flag—did leave the Bundestag in a rare situation of uncertainty. However, this external jolt provides an opportunity to revitalise our democracy.

There are currently intense debates about what should be done about this political situation among different parties and between the party leaders and the President. The publicly discussed scenarios cause quite some tension—if the Social Democratic Party (SPD) does not agree to form yet another grand coalition, two scenarios are possible: snap elections, which President Frank Walter Steinmeier strongly opposes, or a minority government, a possibility over which a number of politicians, scholars, and political commentators have voiced concerns.

But the German Basic Law is well prepared for situations like the current one because the lawyers who drafted it in 1948 had all observed the instability of the Weimar Republic, where minority governments were the rule rather than the exception. Article 63 of the Basic Law lays out the path for such scenarios: The president suggests a chancellor to the parliament. In a first vote, the candidate needs an absolute majority. If this is not given, the process goes into a second round. Again, an absolute majority is needed. If this again is not achieved, a third round, where alternative candidates can also enter the game, only requires a relative majority. The president can now either appoint the candidate with the most votes as chancellor or call for a minority government. If he does the latter, the candidate to be chancellor has to spell out a clear plan on how to govern the country with variable support of parliament.

But we are not there yet. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party are still hoping for another grand coalition with the SPD, which is in a unique and challenging catch-22: The party chairman, Martin Schulz, clearly ruled out another grand coalition on election eve and has stressed this position again and again; The President, Frank Walter Steinmeier, is now putting pressure on him and the SPD to avoid a snap election or a minority government chaired by a weakened Merkel. French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras have also attempted to convince Schulz to reconsider his initial position, so the heat really is on.

However, the Jusos, the powerful youth organisation of the SPD, are very hesitant if not openly opposed to yet another grand coalition. And they might be powerful enough to prevent it from happening if the SPD members get a chance to vote on this matter. Snap elections bear the danger of the SPD losing even more votes and dropping below 20 percent.

So will Merkel lead Germany as a chancellor with a minority government for the next four years? Is this the last option to avoid snap elections? It might be. And it might even be a good option.

First, under Merkel’s leadership, the executive has gained tremendous power and parliamentary debate has been considerably weakened. A minority government would have to gain support and build temporary coalitions for certain issue areas. So parliamentary debate would regain its power.

Second, as a consequence of the necessity to build support and coalitions, minority governments would need to look for public support for its legislation. So not only would it strengthen the parliamentary debate, but also public debate on policy issues. And this would work against what we have been calling “Politikverdrossenheit”, the constant decline of voter turnout and party membership.

In sum, the current German situation may seem like an unstable one, especially given the German political culture. However, the options that are currently on the negotiating table bear the potential to reform and improve the German political stage.

Andrea Römmele is a Professor of Communication in Politics and Civil Society at the Hertie School of Governance and Co-Chair of the Dahrendorf Working Group ‘“Societal Change, Politics and the Public Sphere”.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.