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Does Germany's coalition failure reflect a crisis of party representation?
In recent months, many crisis scenarios have been aired in Germany. Doomsayers have variously predicted an electoral landslide in favour of the populist right wing-party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD); a domino-line collapse of the Euro; and an unstoppable tide of refugees in the context of a weakened European Union (EU). The one crisis nobody saw coming was the collapse of Germany’s government coalition negotiations. Never in (West) Germany’s post-war history has Germany failed to secure a viable majority coalition government following an election. In Germany, this amounts to a crisis of governance because it recalls Hitler’s rise to power through his exploitation of a power vacuum at the heart of the Weimar Republic’s constitutional democracy. In fact, the failure of the coalition talks has deep roots in Germany’s party system and governance culture. It is a symptom of a wider crisis of partisan representation in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. The only real surprise is the catalysts for this pivotal event.
The wider cause of the crisis is the breakdown of traditional structures of political representation through mainstream political parties. This is not unique to Germany: in fact, it is a common experience in those north-western European party systems that were first laid down at the time of mass enfranchisement. These parties emerged as a way of realising the twin democratic principles of representation and pluralism. In a system where differences of political opinion were seen as a natural and healthy feature of political life, political parties emerged to represent a range of ‘clienteles’. Each of the parties embodied a specific group of voters with common social and economic characteristics. In this way, socialist parties developed to represent industrial workers, agrarian parties to represent farming communities, liberal-conservative parties to represent employers and the wealthy – and so on. Parties mirrored the unique pattern of social and economic conflicts in each country and set about organising the representation of their clienteles in parliament. The downside of this institutionalisation of representation through parties was that the party system was slow to adapt to new social and economic demands from a changing public. Their traditional ideological platforms gradually lost touch with the way people live and make voting decisions. Also, the parties were ‘captured’ by the state system they served. As they became more deeply embedded in the structures of the establishment, their key purpose of representation was usurped by their desire to get into government. The mainstream parties developed a ‘governing vocation’.
From the 1980s to the millennial years it seemed as if the party systems would adapt to new voter demands through processes of ‘dealignment’ (the increasing gap between parties and their traditional clienteles) and ‘realignment’ (the formation of new parties relevant to contemporary needs, such as green parties, anti-EU parties and so on). However, recent voting patterns demonstrate that realignment has not satisfied alienated publics and that European countries are facing a crisis of pluralism and of representation.
Peter Mair’s vision of a ‘partyless democracy’ or ‘institutionalised populism’ goes some way to capturing recent electoral realities. Mair noted that ‘populist democracy may be understood as popular democracy without parties’. In fact, two distinct forms of populist movement have emerged to contest elections on an anti-pluralist platform of governing on behalf of all. The first is the far-right populism now familiar throughout western Europe. The second is the rise of a personality politician with a minimal party base. Here the party structure is residual to governance and currently exists as a label to channel the vote at election times. These new ‘post-party’ charismatic leaders include French President Emmanuel Macron and the German liberal Free Democratic Party leader Christian Lindner.
The world witnessed the crisis of party representation in real time as the relatively unknown Macron formed his own party En Marche! and stormed the Presidential elections. In contrast, Germany’s crisis has entered quietly, through the back door. While German voters’ trust in their mainstream parties was clearly declining prior to September 2017’s general election, there was no sign of a German Macron to win over the public with personal charisma and promises of reform. The new Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader, Martin Schulz, initially made a positive impact as his party’s Chancellor candidate, but his popularity peaked early and the SPD slumped to 20%, its lowest vote in post-war Germany. Christian Lindner, the FDP’s would-be Macron, had the more modest aim of getting the reinvented FDP back into parliament. After the election, his party’s share of parliamentary seats (80 of 709) seemed unlikely to upset the old party dynamic.
Instead, Germany’s fears for the election had centred on the rising support for the far right AfD. While polls and surveys indicated a relative majority for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/ Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU), some feared that anger over the Chancellor’s generous asylum policy and the increasing social and economic polarisation in Germany might prompt a landslide to the right. In the event, the AfD made 13% of the vote and entered the parliament for the first time - a substantial gain garnered from all of the main parties and the mobilisation of non-voters, but no landslide.
Having safely weathered the September elections, the danger to Germany’s party governance seemed to have passed. Even when the SPD announced it would prefer an opposition role to a renewal of the ‘Grand Coalition’ with the CDU/CSU, the option for majority government through a coalition of mainstream parties remained in the ‘Jamaica’ model. Processes for coalition government formation in Germany are highly institutionalised and had always reached a viable resolution. This time, though, after exhaustive talks about talks, the FDP withdrew from the negotiations citing insufficient trust between the participants.
It is no coincidence that the FDP was responsible for the’ collapse of the talks. All other parties to the discussions – the CDU, CSU, and Greens – are thoroughly socialised into the conventions of coalition negotiations at regional (Land) if not federal level. They are also accountable to their established party structures and an interested membership. The FPD leader Lindner, by contrast, sits at the head of a party in the process of rebuilding itself after its crash in the previous elections. Having campaigned largely on his own personality and leadership qualities, his potential electorate is currently of greater value to him than his party backing. In halting the talks, he is gambling on fresh elections in which he hopes that a greater share of the electorate will buy into his neo-liberal right-wing alternative to the centrist model of governance practised under Merkel. If he fails in this gamble, he has relatively little to lose. Early opinion polls suggest that Lindner may have miscalculated – fresh elections would be more likely to rally mainstream voters to Merkel’s middle way to avoid the risk of a more decisive shift to the far right under the AfD. Nevertheless, the coalition negotiations crisis demonstrates how vulnerable the German party system, so solid for so long, now stands in the advent of the ‘post-party’ leader.
Patricia Hogwood is Reader in European Politics at the University of Westminster, and a member of the PSA German Politics Specialist Group (GPSG).
Image: Claas Augner CC BY 2.0