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Minority government in NRW

by DoDo Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 07:33:24 AM EST

Germany's most populous state, Northrhine-Westphalia (NRW) held regional elections in May. Given that federal Germany's upper house consists of representatives of the state governments, and state governments consisting of right-of-centre parties only (that is, the parties of the federal government coalition) had a slim majority, the election had national significance. And given that the election happened at the time of the Greek crisis, and Chancellor Merkel was recklessly electioneering, the election also had EU-wide significance (also see Merkel Above All and the update The wild hog and the cucumber troops).

The election result was a big defeat for NRW's incumbent CDU-FDP coalition, but finding a government majority proved difficult in the new five-party arithmetic. At the end of a two-month-long coalition poker, something with scant history in Germany but more history elsewhere (f.e. New Zealand, Canada) emerged yesterday: a minority government. A centre-left coalition will govern one seat short of majority, and thereby enable the left to block the federal government's 'reforms' in the federal upper house of parliament.


Until yesterday, all politically possible combinations were in discussion. First I list the five parties for reference, with color codes and seats won in the May election in NRW:

  1. Christian Democrats (CDU), black: 67
  2. Social Democrats (SPD), red: 67
  3. Greens, green: 23
  4. Free Democrats (FDP, neoliberals), yellow: 13
  5. Left Party (hard left), also red: 11

So, let's combine them:

  • The outgoing government was, like the federal government, a "black-yellow" coalition (CDU+FDP).

  • With Greens rising and FDP dropping in the polls prior to the election, the media expected an across-the-divides "black-green" coalition (CDU+Greens).

  • The declared wish of the main opposition party was for a "red-green" coalition (SPD+Greens). Alas, it fell short of majority by one seat.

  • With significant pressure from part of the base, NRW SPD leader Hannelore Kraft first tried talks towards the left-of-centre version, "red-red-green" (SPD+Left Party+Greens). But that seems to have been an alibi operation, because the end with a declaration that the NRW Left Party is unfit for government came after just a few hours of talks.

  • Next came talks between the two main parties about a "Grand Coalition" (CDU+SPD). However, while the CDU ended up level on seats with the SPD (an even stronger fall than in pre-election polls), it got a bit more votes (beating exit polls), and used that as basis to insist on giving (keeping) the prime minister.

  • By the time the above talks failed, the FDP backed off from previous ultimatums towards the left-wing parties, and the next attempt was for a tripartite centrist option: the "traffic lights coalition" (SPD+FDP+Greens). However, differences were just too great.

  • In the meantime, occasionally the CDU also tried to court the Greens for the other centrist version, a "Jamaica coalition" (CDU+FDP+Greens), but the Greens showed no willingness for such a suicide.

After playing all the bad cards, the SPD decided for an option even more unconventional that what emerged in the end: "government from opposition". That is, they would have left the elected-off government in office as caretaker government, but forced their hand with parliamentary votes.

This, however, would not have changed majorities in the federal upper house, and that ahead of crucial votes on energy and the austerity package. For this reason, the federal SPD leaders were angered -- and the Greens even moreso. The Greens felt taken for granted, and their leaders launched unprecedented open attacks in the media. With effect: days later, SPD leader Kraft announced the minority government option: a government that seeks allies of occasion for each law it presents. The excuse was a similar scuffle that emerged between the NRW FDP and CDU: the NRW FDP was miffed by the CDU's continuing courting of the SPD in the hopes of a Grand Coalition, and declared that they don't feel bound to them -- which Kraft interpreted as the end of the CDU-FDP coalition and thus a change of the situation.

After four weeks of coalition talks, the two parties approved the coalition agreement, the Left Party approved an abstaining in the vote on the wannabe minority government, while the CDU declared fundamental opposition. The vote was held yesterday (Wednesday). The rules are that simple majority is enough in the second round. In both rounds, there was full party discipline, that is: 90 votes for the minority government, 80 against, 11 abstaining.

The right-wing parties of course speak about a dark hour, and won't stop scaremongering about Kraft being at the mercy of the Left Party.

I am looking forward to the future battles in the German federal upper house...

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To avoid confusion between the Red Left party and the (also Red) SPD, would it not be better to colour code the SPD as pink?  We refer to our "smoked salmon socialists" in the Labour party as pinkos for that reason.

Minority Governments are common in many jurisdictions, and tend to exert huge pressure on the minority party which holds the balance of power - in this case the Left Party.  They will get none of the credit for anything that goes well - the Government will take that - and all of the blame if the Government fails to achieve some goal - the CDU/FDP are, after all, only being "principled" in their opposition!

The Left party will be forced to compromise their principles in order to keep the Government in power - perhaps in response to some small concessions - which will be branded as examples of corruption and weakness by the Government - and when, finally, they are forced to bring the Government down, they will be blamed for betraying the left and risking a return to power by the right.  Their own base will be demoralised by every time they abstain on a Government measure without seeming to have had much influence.

All in all a pretty thankless position to be in...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 08:04:42 AM EST
would it not be better to colour code the SPD as pink?

Heh :-) However, pollsters already practise the colour-coding of the Left Party as purple. For example, this is a July poll for NRW (with the change numbers relative to the election result):

The Left party will be forced to compromise their principles in order to keep the Government in power

I'm not sure about that. I can imagine occasional support for the government from at least the FDP. Moreover, should poll numbers show a red-green majority, even the CDU might decide to f.e. vote for the budget to avoid new elections...

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:11:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I can't find the article right now, but the Left party was threatening a few days ago to propose legislation that the SPD doesn't want, and force the latter to vote against their principles.
by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:15:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But a vote against or abstention on a Linke proposal wouldn't be a vote of confidence for the SPD/Greens.  They can always rely on the CDU/FDP to vote down any Linke proposal.  Indeed there could be a tacit SPD/Linke agreement to abstain on each others proposals thus avoiding a demoralisation of either base.  It would be different if the SPD/Greens actually needed Die Linke to vote FOR a Government motion.  That's not going to happen, I presume.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:29:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But a vote against or abstention on a Linke proposal wouldn't be a vote of confidence for the SPD/Greens.

It may drive voters to the Left Party, however.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 03:48:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well if its a very popular Linke proposal, the SPD/Greens have the option of adopting it as their own or the SPD can blame the greens for forcing it to abstain.  The CDU/FDP on the other hand, have to find a way to get the Linke to vote FOR their proposal or with them against an SPD/Green proposal - something Die Linke would presumably find more difficult.

Being a minority Government gives the SPD/Greens a cop-out on almost everything.  "We didn't have a majority to get Bill X through" if they didn't want to do it anyway, or "Die Linke forced our hand on this unpopluar tax increase", or more likely "we had to water down our welfare proposals to appease the FDP"...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 04:08:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well if its a very popular Linke proposal,

For a bleed of voter base it's enough if it is popular with the SPD's and the Greens' left wings and creates a rift with the more centrist government. For example, the new government wants to save too, and they want to delay the elimination of tuition fees (one of the local election themes) for one year.

Being a minority Government gives the SPD/Greens a cop-out on almost everything.

But that's a double-edged weapon: it makes you appear weak and vulnerable.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 04:59:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's probably this speech, but I can't find an article with more details either.

Linken-Basis will Wahl von Hannelore Kraft ermöglichen | Westfälische Nachrichten - Für Münster und das Münsterland - NRW

Zudem werde die Linke selbst zahlreiche Gesetzesinitiativen in den Landtag einbringen. ,,Wir werden die rot-grüne Minderheitsregierung damit vor uns her treiben", sagte Zimmermann.


*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:44:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Presumably the post election honeymoon bounce for the winning Government parties won't last all that long.  Does the opposition majority in the Bundesrat now mean that effectively Germany now has a grand coalition - i.e. nothing major can happen unless both the CDU and SPD can live with it?

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:31:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
opposition majority in the Bundesrat

There is no opposition majority. But the Grand Coalition (Meklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia), Jamaica (Saarland) and Black-Green (Hamburg) coalition governments will abstain or demand compromises in high-stakes political votes.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:49:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Adding: in the Bundesrat, the state government representatives cannot split their vote (splitting it makes the vote invalid -- so far there was exactly one case of this), so parties aren't directly represented.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:57:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Depends on:

  1.  How they play it internally to party members and externally in the government chambers

  2.  If they get access to the mass media

To be Serious™ you have to act or appear to act Serious&trade.  The news media can hardly go around carrying The Left politicians making Serious™ Noises on the front page and call them UnSerious™ on the OpEd and Editorial pages.

It's up to The Left party leaders and operatives to come up with policies and news-worthy stuff the other parties HAVE to do more than simple dismissal.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 04:34:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's Raining (Wo)men: New State Government Marks Political Gender Shift in Germany - SPIEGEL ONLINE - News - International

There are many women in politics in Germany, from the leader of the country herself to heads of ministries and states. The latest are Hannelore Kraft, the brand new governor of Germany's most populous state, and her deputy Sylvia Löhrmann. Still, the country has a long way to go before the glass ceiling is entirely shattered.

On Wednesday, two women took the political helm in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The country's most populous state will now be led by a minority coalition governmentpairing the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) with the Green Party. Hannelore Kraft, 49, of the SPD, is the new governor, and Sylvia Löhrmann, a 53-year-old member of the Greens, will serve as her deputy.

It marks a fundamental shift for a state that has long been known as much for its graft and grime as it was for it coal and steel. Even as the rest of the country progressed politically, NRW remained a man's world, led by powerful former governors like Jürgen Rüttgers, Wolfang Clement and Peer Steinbrück. But this week, a message of female empowerment emerged from the former boy's club.

by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 12:27:45 PM EST
I wish Ypsilanti had been the next strong woman...

Meanwhile, I note that in Berlin, a strongwoman of the Greens, former federal consumer protection and agriculture minister Renate Künast declared her willingness to run for mayor in 2011, against SPD bigshot Klaus Wowereit.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 12:45:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is very similar to the swedish politics during most of the post-war era when the default option was a minority soc-dem government. As long as the communists left party could not agree with the parties to the right and there was some internal competition on the right to be counted the soc-dems could rule alone, safe in the knowledge that the left would extremely rarely vote them down on a crucial issue even if the right was united.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:46:58 PM EST
There is a lot of practice with minority government around the world, but it is not a local tradition in NRW or Germany, so all sides have to learn to live with it (or head for new elections). Which leads me to ask: how did the first few minority governments fare in Sweden? Was there a bumpy ride?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Jul 15th, 2010 at 01:52:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes it was quite bumpy.

Sweden changed system in the years around 1920 from limited suffrage and FPTP to general suffrage and proportional representation, making minority governments more common. In the 1920ies Sweden had 9 different governments, making the 1920ies by the most volatile decade in swedish history. In the 1930ies it settled down as the rules had been worked out, and the soc-dems had established themselves as the dominant party.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Jul 16th, 2010 at 07:12:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The city-state of Hamburg is governed by Germany's first (and so far only) state-level black-green coalition, under mayor Ole von Beust.

A key project of the Greens the CDU allowed to advance (against significant resistance from the party base) was the change of the school system. In most states of (West) Germany, elementary school is only four years, then selection starts; something seen as reinforcing class divides and braking vertical mobility by leftists. So Hamburg's Greens introduced a reform for a 6-year elementary school.

So far so good. But an initiative of parents against the reform gathered enough signatures for a referendum, to be held tomorrow. The ugly part of it is that a lot of the affected pupils are children of foreign nationals, who can't vote in this referendum.

A referendum victory would bring difficult times for the coalition, and its advocates within the CDU; and there is someone who doesn't want any of it: mayor von Beust. In the last two days, there were several media reports that he plans to resign claiming private reasons; Die Zeit reports today that the announcement shall be made hours before the end of the referendum.

In case you wonder, recent polls indicated CDU losses and SPD gains, with and SPD-Greens absolute majority -- which would mean that the CDU would want to hold to power by maintaining the coalition with clinched teeth under a new leader. However, a referendum success for the traditionalists might change poll numbers, and with that political calculations regarding eventual new elections.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sat Jul 17th, 2010 at 06:18:21 AM EST


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