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Grand Coalition Is A Grand Illusion

by hesk Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 06:23:45 AM EST

Recent polls suggest that the Germans currently favor a grand coalition.  Deutsche Welle, a German news outlet akin to BBC World, has an opinion piece where the author argues that this is not such a great idea.

Germany's Collective Self-Delusion

"Grand coalition" is a phrase that sounds promising, productive and harmonious for many Germans, who still remember the time between 1966 and 1969, when the first and only alliance of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats ruled the country on the national level.


Back then, the grand coalition laid the foundation for Germany's societal liberalization, which was later completed by the coalition government of Social Democrats and Free Democrats that followed it. Black-red initiated a new policy approach towards the Eastern bloc and made first steps towards modernizing the country's system of government.

Unfortunately, we're not in the 60s anymore and the situation is very different now.  I'm not one who likes to sound pessimistic about Germany's future, but there are serious problems that need to be addressed: the high unemployment rate, the gap in the pension system and the fact, that we borrow more and more money to satisfy our budget.

More on the flip.

The CDU and the SPD differ fundamentally in how these problems should be fixed and the CDU is keen to use the opportunity to ram through its agenda.  These differences would be very hard to reconcile and the fights that now go on between the SPD-dominated Bundestag and the CDU-dominated Bundesrat would continue in the cabinet.

Additionally, every concession the SPD makes would be thoroughly exploited by the Left Party opposition and that spells disaster for the future of the SPD.  The SPD elite would be in limbo between demands of the CDU on one side and the need to preserve their own party on the other side.

An alliance between CDU and SPD could rely on a sound parliamentary majority, but it wouldn't be able to make clear decisions. This would result in a watered-down reform program, which would only cost Germany more precious time.

Sure, a broad-based reform coalition would be desirable in order to secure wide acceptance for necessary cuts. But this would require all those involved to display a willingness to accept what's necessary -- something that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment. Instead, Germany's voters and parties quite obviously still tend to indulge in collective self-delusion.

A lot of newspapers share this pessimistic view.  From the BBC's European press review:

[The Berliner Zeitung] dismisses [a grand coalition] as "nothing more than a product of the imagination of those who want to see change, but not too much of it".

Die Welt also believes that advocates of a grand coalition want primarily to preserve the status quo.

"Voters do not vote for a grand coalition, they get it if the result requires it," it says. "But those who regard it as a political goal want above all one thing: no change."

Of course, speculation about a grand coalition is not helped by SPD politicians publicly contemplating it instead of campaigning for their own party.  From the Spiegel's German Papers:

The most left-wing of Germany's major newspapers, die Tagezeitung believes the Social Democrats are now gearing themselves up for a grand coalition, and SPD ministers are positioning themselves accordingly to continue in office. The paper cites two leading social-democrat politicians, Hans Eichel (finance minister) and Wolfgang Clement (economics and labor minister) who both hinted over the weekend that they would be happy to partake in a grand coalition. Eichel said that such a coalition is conceivable in principle, whilst Clement suggested it "wouldn't be the end of the world".

In short, the paper says, "The entire SPD government team wants to carry on. Each of them is considering how they could keep their jobs under a Merkel chancellorship." After all, the major social welfare and tax reforms will be taken up by the conservatives in any case. So why not be part of the action? One thing is clear: Should a grand coalition materialize, the paper is certain that Schröder would refuse to take part in such an enterprise. "There will be no 'vice-Chancellor Schröder,'" the commentator sensibly predicts.

I'll go further and say that there will be no SPD finance or economics minister in a grand coalition either.  Eichel and Clements will have to go looking for a new job in any case.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung agrees.  Again, from the Spiegel:

"Many leading social democrats are more attracted by remaining a partner in government than by beginning the renewal of the party in opposition." Furthermore, "an astounding number of voters still believe that a partnership of conservatives and social democrats can soonest solve the country's problems."

But this would lead to compromises geared towards the lowest common denominator, the paper says.  The only justification for such a political formation would be to block the participation of the populist Left Party from entering government. "A clear solution would be preferable," the commentator concludes. "Merkel and Westerwelle [the liberals' leader], have insisted for so long that they could do better, and should now be given the chance to prove it."

I'd rather see the Left Party in the government than the CDU and the FDP ruling Germany the next four years, but only 10% of Germans agree with me and both the SPD and the Left Party have ruled out the possibility of a coalition.  The Left Party even wrote so much into their election manifesto.  But all bets are off on election night and there's still six weeks to go.

"Merkel and Westerwelle [the liberals' leader], have insisted for so long that they could do better, and should now be given the chance to prove it."

Isn't the SZ supposed to be left-leaning?...

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

by DoDo on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 07:18:31 AM EST
Yes it is.  I guess the half-sentence "to prove once and for all that they can't" is missing.
by hesk on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 08:55:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
...it is pretty much centrist. They argued for the war in Iraq and are advocating a "reform-agenda" for some time now.

I cancelled my subscription after ten years last year, after the notorious column, which was later quoted in Angela Merkels letter to president Bush offering him her support for the war.

They were the newspaper of the 90's. But they are in constant intellectual and journalistic decline.

by jandsm on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 09:37:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That was news to me.  Well, they're left to the FAZ, FWIW.

I must admit that I stopped reading newspapers in print for a long time and mostly get my news from radio and internet, so I may not be up-to-date on those matters.  Although, the Spiegel leaving out a qualifier is telling, they do it for a lot of other papers.

by hesk on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 09:53:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the early nineties, when I became a news junkie, I started read Spiegel, Newsweek, Time and The Economist. I quickly decided that Spiegel is best by a length (for example, when all others were still optimistic about the I/P peace process, they correctly predicted the course of Barak's future PM-ship even before he was elected party leader), and that the Economist is unbearable. From the time of the second Palestinian Intifada, I increasingly got fed up with the spin and hypocrisy in the two American magazines (something the American Left got a strong sense of only during the Bush era), which worsened during the 2000 elections, and I completely abadoned them in the run-up to the Iraq war. I was left with Spiegel.

However, Spiegel's quality declined strongly after the death of Rudolf Augstein. First there was their complete turn-around on Iraq, publishing excerpts from Kevin Pollack's book, which whitewashed twenty years of US Iraq policy and spun it in an anti-Iraq, anti-UN-inspectors way. Then some articles on asylants that sounded xenophobic. It also seemed that economy articles with a renegade view disappeared. And Henryk M. Broder had room for too many lame articles. But what drew the line for me was wind power. (Yeah, my pet issue.)

IIRC in late spring 2003, SPIEGEL ON-LINE had a great article summing up and debunking all the anti-wind-power spin VDEW, Clement & co began to put forth then. I was anixously waiting for the same article to appear in the paper version. To no avail. Instead, some half a year later, they brought a cover article - reproducing all the debunked spin and 'arguments'! It was a real hatchet job. (I later read one of the authors of the internet article quit SPIEGEL in response.) Their later endorsement for presidential candidate Köhler only underlined my notion. At this point, like you, I became an (almost-)internet-only news reader.

Now, I wonder whether what happened to the Spiegel is the takeover of a different team, or part of a general righward (and dumb-ward) lurch of the whole German media elite. At any rate, I sensed the latter too: jandsm, you say the SZ praises the 'reforms', but so did some articles and editorials I read in the taz!

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

by DoDo on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 03:55:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was reading SZ pretty regularly back then. I don't remember them arguing for the war. Quite the opposite. I do remember regular pro-war op-ed type pieces but IIRC they were outweighed by the anti-war ones.  I see SZ as your standard issue 'socio-liberal' paper. Similar to Le Monde in that way.
FWIW my favorite German daily is FAZ - in spite of its annoying conservatism it tends to be the most comprehensive and of the highest quality. Of the weeklies I like Die Zeit. Spiegel has a tabloid quality to it at times which annoys me.
by MarekNYC on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 03:11:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Grand coalitions" typically lead to a reinforcement of the other parties, as the only alternative available. In such case, it is hard to see the Greens and the FDP gaining more than a little, so the real beneficiaries would likely be the Left Party ("the only remaining party of the left" or such similar slogan) and whatever populist movement can emerge on the hard right, out of the nationalist fringe -there have already been several "eruptions", and a grand coalition could only encourage that.

And you end up with a parliament like Israel's, where the two main parties now barely have half the votes and are forever outflanked on their extremes.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 10:55:13 AM EST
One of the parties I guess you count among the two main parties, Likud, started out as a coalition of far-right parties against Labour.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 05:08:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but unlike in Israel Germany has a 5% barrier for getting into the Bundestag so that limits the fragmentation a bit.
by MarekNYC on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 03:13:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
but in this case, you'd have 5 parties, so the combinations are alrteady becoming quite varied.

Nobody has mentioned SPD/Greens/FDP yet. Could that happen? It would have the vote, possibly.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 06:25:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No, it won't. The FDP (which is aggressively neoliberal, with nationalist residues; the social liberals left the party long ago and were always in the minority anyway) and the Greens are very hostile to each other. The FDP attacks environmental projects in the interest of business interests at every opportunity, and with unlimited demagoguery.

Actually, the major of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit - who maybe you read of for his spectacular self-outing as a homosexual, at least I saw the story making waves the British press - used this as a clever trick: to make his coalition with the PDS more easily accepted, he first 'tried' to form an SPD-Greens-FDP coalition, and let the insurmountable Greens-FDP divisions play out and lead to failure.

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

by DoDo on Fri Aug 12th, 2005 at 03:37:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I used to like the FDP back in the time of Genscher, the longtime German foreign minister. But they got worse at every turn since.

First they had an election campaign with the slogan "Partei der Besserverdienenden" (party of the high-earners) - can you get more disgustingly elitist than that? Now, since that led to low poll numbers, party enfant terrible Mölleman and new leader Westerwelle devised a new strategy of populism. First, make the party hip among young people! This was the birth of the Spaßpartei (fun party), of unserious politics, and non-politics - Westerwelle appearing as guest in the Big Brother container... when this began to run out, Mölleman took aim at the old far-right and new far-right Muslim vote, with a borderline anti-semitic campaign, which was also financed with black money - when investigators got close to him, he committed a spectacular suicide (jumping from an airplane and not opening his parachute). With populism over, and Westerwelle weakened, only sucking up to business interests remained. I don't understand why they get 7% in the polls.

Finally, I mention something that would have saved the liberals, but regrettably, didn't work out. A few years ago a group of students in Berlin, fed up with federal politics, thought that things could be changed only by way of a hostile takeover of a small party. They choose the Liberals - and started a mass movement to join the party all across Germany. Unfortunately, the old party members held against - and erected barriers to new applicants, so the whole thing floundered.

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

by DoDo on Fri Aug 12th, 2005 at 03:47:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for the feedback.

I had heard some of the antics of the new leaders, but had not realised that they had pushed it in so many unpleasant directions. I did look at it more like the party of Genscher, indeed, and a lot more social liberal.

As my image of the German Greens is Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who is also known in France, I thought that they could be close but understand that they would not be close from what you write...

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Fri Aug 12th, 2005 at 04:32:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm a generation younger than the '68ers, so I'm supposed to hate them, but I like Red Dan very much!

Have you read a translation of his fiery exchange with Robert Kagan (the neocon of "Europeans from Venus, Americans from Mars" fame) on the eve of the Iraq war? It was hilarious and visionary at the same time - apart from de Villepin at the UN and until Galloway, he was the only one to go for a full ideological confrontation. (Also his debate with Richard Perle a bit earlier.)

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

by DoDo on Fri Aug 12th, 2005 at 04:49:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I know it is not quite a possibility - nobody is asking for it but, the CDU and Greens have at times oggled at each other. f.e in Baden Wuertemberg.

I don't really like that idea, as it would bring out the worst in the Greens, but there are huge areas of overlap (agreement on university tuition fees for starters)
However, I have to admit, that this is possibly a late 90 szenario and not quite up to date anymore.
Also what ever happened to the Social Liberals, did they really all leave the Liberal Party in 1982? Baum, Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger. Well thinking of Günter Verheugen, I sort of answered my own ramblings. Still.

I have to agree with you Jerome to only some extent. I don't think the extreme right is going to benefit on national level in the short or long run. But in general a Grand Coalition would only hurt the big parties.

One other thing, I would also be interested to hear is the influence of the expected election turnout and how this is weight in the polls - are there any poll experts among us?. As I said in another comment recently, the higher the turnout, the lower the % the Linksparty is getting, if the statistics about the PDS can be trusted.

Let's also not forget, that the judges will have a final say on the 22nd of August. Although i don't think they will "dare" do declare the dissolution of parliament as unconstitutional. That would give quite a stink....

by PeWi on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 12:04:16 PM EST
You're right, if CDU and FDP don't have a majority, CDU and the Greens likely will.  And coalitions between them have been contemplated on a state level earlier, but it has never materialized.  On a federal level the Greens and the CDU are too much apart to work together in a meaningful way, IMHO.  AFAIK, the Greens are more to the left than the SPD.

BTW, the Greens are against tuition fees up to the first academic degree.  I haven't yet read the manifesto of the CDU in detail to judge the overlap, but it's not large, no doubt.

by hesk on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 02:05:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Maybe it's the British Greens who favour tuition fees?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 05:11:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, as I said, I am out of this since about 10 years, but when I was discussing things with this guy Nach meiner Wahl in den Bundestag 1994 begann ich meine bildungspolitische Arbeit mit der Entwicklung eines eigenen Konzepts zur elternunabhängigen Studienfinanzierung (BAFF-Modell).
It was rather neo-liberal. As I said, I have not checked on their policies since. well, now I just did: sorry all in German It might not be part of their election manifest, and I know the fzs is rather leftish (hehe), but this looks very much like the stuff we were discussing ten years ago. Same Partners as well. Heinrich Boell and CHE - Bertelsmann foundation(any bells).
by PeWi on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 07:23:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I meant Heinrich Boell Foundation of course, affiliated with the Green Party ... is a legally independent political foundation working in the spirit of intellectual openness.
by PeWi on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 07:48:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree with you that the Grand Coalition is a pretty bad idea. On the other hand from my perspective a red-red-green coalition is even worse. For me the Linkspartei is only a step better than the extreme right parties. From what I can tell from the German coverage I'm not alone in that view among center left types.  I of course get no vote in Germany but if I did I'd vote for the Greens, except that is if I believed they'd be willing to get into a coalition with the Linkspartei - then I'd toss a coin and vote either FDP or CDU.  If I'm right that my views are shared by a statistically significant part of potential SPD and Green voters than it would be in the interest of the SPD and Greens to deny any potential red-red-green coalition until after the election. IIRC they did that before they first entered into a Landesregierung coalition with the PDS. I'm sure there will be many who want just that if there is an appropriate election result, then again, if a red-red-green majority is very narrow, it could be torpedoed by defecting MdB's. Those who believe that Lafontaine is a German Haider (to use Fischer's description) won't be to enthusiastic.
by MarekNYC on Thu Aug 11th, 2005 at 03:26:07 PM EST

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