Crafting a Coalition: The Options in Berlin

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.


Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are. – Bertolt Brecht

The results of the September 24 elections—losses by centrist parties and gains by a strong new far-right party—and the subsequent inability of party leaders to forge a coalition in Berlin should be a wakeup call for German politicians of all stripes.

The seventy-year trend of stability in party politics was upended this year. While typically elections have been contests between competing parties who indicated in advance with whom they would form a coalition, this time it didn’t work out that way. What we are seeing in Germany today is an historically unique situation: an attempt to forge a new government after an election when, for the first time, there was not a pre-election commitment by parties to do just that. The effort to find common ground has failed so far.

So now what? German voters sent seven political parties to the Bundestag. Four were expected to build a coalition; three were to be in the opposition. But that mix is now mixed up, and the previous grand coalition government made up of the CDU, CSU, and SPD remains in place. That will not change until another governing arrangement replaces it, or until new elections are held. But new elections are probably the last option. The voters spoke on September 24. Do they need to speak again right away? Not if the members of the Bundestag get serious about their jobs.

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier is making the case to those who remain willing to try. The pro-business FDP has said it is not interested. The center-right CDU and its Bavarian sister-party, the CSU, are ready to play ball, and see two options. First: re-forge a majority coalition with the center-left SPD (if it is willing) and maybe expand that coalition to include the Greens and enlarge the majority.

Second: have a minority government led by Angela Merkel. No one seems to think that is feasible—least of all Merkel. However, some might argue that it would emancipate the parties from a formal coalition embrace and would create a more flexible “coalition of the willing” when it comes to getting legislation done. It has been tried at the state level. Whether it would work in Berlin is questionable.

Likely outcome? No one knows right now, but the signals from the SPD suggest that the party might change its mind at its upcoming party convention, encouraged to do so by President Steinmeier, who happens to be an SPD member. Would that coalition include the Greens (assuming they’d be willing)? Signals from their recent party convention seem to suggest that they might consider it as a way to reengage in a governing coalition. Of course, the bargaining over conditions would be challenging.

Given all these options, what we are seeing is not a government crisis so much as a recalibration of the political party system to reflect significant change—in party identity, political platforms, and voter preferences. All parties are struggling to connect with voters. Core constituencies are not as identifiable as they used to be, nor are they as reliable, as can be seen in the results of the two Volksparteien: Whereas the of CDU/CSU/SPD had 80 percent of the seats in the last parliament, now they have only 56 percent.

This is not a trend driven by economic anxiety. The German economy is booming, on track for 2 percent growth in 2018 according to the IFO Economic Institute. It has low unemployment, strong exports, and is part of an overall positive trend in the Eurozone.

Rather, it is the political uncertainty that aggravates Germans. That has more to do with the schizophrenic attitude Germans have toward how much change they say they want versus how much they are actually willing to tolerate. It is no wonder that politicians are having trouble lining up those two trends. They are trying to divine the political will of a complicated society.

Political parties are expressly mentioned in the German Basic Law (in contrast to the U.S. Constitution). According to Article 21.1, political parties participate in forming the political will of the German people. Over the last seven decades that system has worked, with the parties vying for the votes they need to elect a chancellor and forge a coalition government or winding up in opposition—all in the effort to reflect the will of the people. The evolution of that system saw the Greens and the Left Party join the mix of parties and expanded the presence of voters and their will.

More recently another party—the Alternative for Germany—emerged and gained representation in the largest parliament Germany has ever assembled.

Today, the picture of German politics is more complicated, as is the process of political decision-making. Does that make Germany more uncertain, less predictable? Not necessarily. The debates over priorities and policy may be no less vehement or volatile as they have been in the past. In fact, a more dynamic connection between the parties and their supporters can be a healthy antidote to the spread of populist anger.

Elected officials at numerous levels may be more challenged to clarify their platforms and positions to a more demanding mix of constituents. And leaders will need to define—not dodge—their views as well as their votes. Amid the populist rhetoric ricocheting around the political arena, there is a search among voters for authenticity and, above all, trust.

Whatever mix of parties emerges in whatever color combination from the current negotiations in Berlin, voters will expect them to simply do their job: to govern. Neither the voters nor those watching from outside Germany’s borders will have much patience with procrastination or posturing. Indeed, Germany’s role in Europe and on the global stage has never been more important. It was Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski who once admonished German leaders in Berlin with this message: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”

Germany’s election was an obligation for the voters to decide and then for those elected to deliberate and determine how to move the country forward. Those elected need to meet that obligation.

As Brecht noted, real democratic governments don’t have the option of electing another people if elections don’t go the way the leaders want. Germany’s leaders have been tasked with a difficult job but will ultimately do what their democracy requires: reflect the will of the people.  The challenge is to interpret that will and build a government to implement it.

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