German Democracy Illustrated: The Craft of Forging Consensus

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


Germany’s election results on September 22 are having ripple effects throughout all of the political parties, and could well reshape the landscape of the Bundestag in multiple ways. The ripple is going to run for long time.

The complicated process of constructing a platform for any governing coalition is going to be difficult and may take at least another six to seven weeks to complete. Germany will be fortunate if it has a functioning government by the time Christmas has arrived

Even though the likely outcome of the negotiations will be a coalition between the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), there are any number of wrenches that can be thrown into the machinery at any point. For example, the Social Democrats have decided that they will negotiate with Chancellor Angela Merkel to see whether they can reach an agreement on a platform, but then they will present that platform to the membership of the SPD for a referendum. Should the membership vote against the proposed platform, it will throw the current SPD leadership into a tail spin and could torpedo negotiations. That move also makes it difficult for Merkel to negotiate with the SPD.

As far as the chancellor is concerned, she may have a stronger hand to sell her platform to her own constituencies, given the election victory she just achieved. Yet, she must also consider her sister party, the CSU, which is going to make the process of reaching agreement with the Social Democrats no easy task. Since the leader of the CSU in Bavaria, Horst Seehofer, just won an absolute majority in his state election, he is sowing his political oats, and there is already a clash looming over a number of issues, including a hard clash with the Social Democrats over taxes.

Apart from how long this poker process might last, the time it will take these three parties to agree remains a highly speculative question as well. The threat of using a stalemate with the SPD to suggest that the chancellor could form a coalition with the Green Party is a most unlikely scenario. Part of that problem concerns the Green Party’s readiness to forge such a platform given its own leadership turmoil. A second difficulty is the fact that bridging the gap between the CSU and the Greens at this point would be almost impossible. That might not be the case in four years or possibly eight, but right now, it just does not seem to be in the cards.

With the Free Democrats having been tossed out of the parliament after failing to reach the 5 percent threshold, there are only five parties to be represented in the Bundestag. The plight of the FDP remains uncertain. The liberal party’s mission and message is tarnished by its inability to persuade voters of its relevance despite its almost permanent presence in government during past decades. Rebranding itself will require new leadership, as well as recruiting support among those groups now disappointed with its performance. The FDP is in a weak position among state governments as well, where it is currently represented in only one state government: Saxony.

If a so-called grand coalition does come about, both the Greens and the Left Party will be in the opposition. In an ironic twist of election results, the Left Party got a slightly greater percentage of voters in the election, leaving it with one more seat in the Bundestag. That means that the leader of the Left Party, Gregor Gysi, will have an enhanced platform in responding to the governing coalition, assuming it is the CDU,CSU, and SPD.

It will be interesting to see how these two small opposition parties use their time to position themselves for the next round of elections in 2017. The fact that a large coalition will claim over 70 percent of the members of the Bundestag can lead to a louder voice for smaller parties shouting about the fact that they have been shut out of the legislative process by this supermajority. That can happen on either end of the spectrum. Witness the emergence of the so-called “Alternative for Germany” on the right, which just missed the 5 percent hurdle into the parliament this time around. The discomfort many Germans feel with the role Germany is playing in the euro zone continues to fester, and this new upstart group offers an outlet that may not disappear quickly. Look for this party to appear again in the European Parliament next spring after the elections.

There are not a few people who predict that the SPD might even choose to form a coalition with these two small left-of-center parties in the coming years, even earlier than 2017. While both the SPD leadership and the Greens have emphatically said that the Left Party is not a viable coalition partner now, the evolution of the Left Party could eventually lead in a different direction. The fact is that the three left-of-center parties would already have a majority in parliament, were they to combine forces now. But that is not going to happen. The Left Party’s positions―particularly on foreign policy issues―are not acceptable to the Social Democrats or the Greens. In addition, there are many Social Democrats who do not wish to work with a party they associate with its heritage in the German Democratic Republic.

Assuming that the larger coalition emerges, much will depend on the Merkel’s ability to steer it, as she managed to do so well between 2005 and 2009. Her skills were matched by the ability to work closely and effectively with her then finance minister Peer Steinbrück and a cooperative foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. She will perhaps have Mr. Steinmeier again in the cabinet, should he want to serve again as foreign minister, but she will not have Mr. Steinbrück in her cabinet. Rather, she will have the ambitious leader of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, who will be her likely Vice Chancellor in whatever cabinet position he assumes if he indeed joins the team.

During the financial meltdown in 2008 and 2009 the chancellor and Steinbrück worked hand-in-hand in dealing with the crisis. Whatever challenges come along in the coming years, it is not clear what kind of chemistry will be functioning in the new cabinet. The SPD will be making a hard push to get the key ministries of finance and foreign affairs as well as labor and economics. Amid the negotiations, there will be a lot of sparks flying between the CDU the SPD―and indeed the CSU―over how to distribute those positions. Although Merkel would likely desire to keep Wolfgang Schäuble in that most important cabinet position, the Ministry of Finance, the SPD will make a strong push to get it themselves. That will be one of the key tests of will in the coming weeks.

One of the lessons the SPD is drawing from its first experience as a coalition partner with Merkel is that the party was unable to capitalize on the relatively good job that was done in those four years in the public arena and are therefore wary of another such coalition with similar results. The SPD suffered its worst electoral loss in 2009, 23 percent. But this year they suffered their second worst result of only slightly more than 25 percent, while Merkel’s party hit a record high of 41.5 percent―just missing an absolute majority in the Bundestag. Of course, the SPD knows Merkel needs a partner, and the Social Democrats also know that they have a good deal of influence in the upper chamber of the parliament, where the majority of the sixteen states have the SPD in governing coalitions.

Looking ahead to this long poker game, one could assume that it’s going to be an extremely challenging one, and there are even some who say it cannot be done—and that there might even be new elections called sometime in the spring.

That is an unlikely outcome given the fact that it is all very likely that the two sides can and will find common ground. Additional pressure is exerted by popular expectations that the majority of Germans want this result.

But governing today in any democracy is a huge challenge no matter the combination of leaders and political persuasion in power at any given time. One need only take a good look at the current crisis in Washington, DC emerging over the trenches of political warfare to grasp what happens when political players devote more time to posturing, pontificating, and effectively punishing both the voters and the legislative process with the results.

Germans politicians are seriously and vigorously debating similar hard-edged questions about debt and deficits, how to make government work better, and the role of responsibilities of both the state and the individual. But they are not standing across from each other as perceived enemies. There is a larger framework in which these debates take place—a framework that derives from a shared consensus about striving for the best equation between responsible government and equally responsible citizens. While they know they have problems to solve, the Germans have done pretty well with this debate so far. They have also engaged in it without excessive hyperbolic tantrums largely because the German citizens expect as much. In fact, Germans look across the Atlantic at their counterparts in Washington right now and scratch their heads wondering how such polarization can take over and threaten to shut down the government of the most powerful country in the world.

Germans have a democracy they can be proud of. It is not without its faults. It can be sluggish to change and shy about risks. But looking at it from the longer view, it is the best one Germans have ever had. The next phase of its story will feature a third term chancellor who in more ways than one personifies how that democracy has evolved to where it is today. The eight last years can tell us a lot about what we might expect. As Chancellor Merkel told her fellow citizens right before election day, “You know me.” They agreed and gave her a large vote of confidence. Now, she has to decide how to use it.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.