The German election results
are most interesting.
Far from being the predicted landslide for the Conservatives (CDU) and meltdown for Chancellor Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD), the campaign allowed the latter to steadily regain ground and come to within about three seats of the former. It might yet be even tighter, as the poll in one seat (Dresden) was postponed due to the death of a candidate (just as in South Staffordshire in Britain!) and this seat is likely to be won by the Social Democrats, with a corresponding effect on the top-up proportional seats. In other words, it's a virtual dead-heat!
However, even with their preferred coalition partners (the Greens for the Social Democrats and the Liberals for the Conservatives), neither side has a majority. The balance is held by the Left party – largely the former East German Communists.
What seems to be happening at present is that everyone is ruling out the various alternative coalition options:
- No-one wants to make a deal with the Left Party.
- A “grand coalition” has been ruled out by Schröder (rightly so in my view: a coalition of opposites is bound to run into trouble, and if people later want to vote against the government, they have only extremist parties to vote for).
- A Socialist-Green-Liberal coalition has been ruled out by the Liberals.
- Neither the Liberals nor the Greens are very keen on a Conservative-Liberal-Green coalition (perhaps they have observed what has happened to Leeds City Council!).
So what will happen? The Chancellor (their equivalent of Prime Minister) is elected by the Bundestag (equivalent to our House of Commons) by a majority of all elected members (as opposed to a mere majority of those voting – a requirement that has in the past occasionally forced ill or pregnant members to attend when votes are likely to be close). This takes place in a secret ballot on a proposal of the Federal President. If the person proposed by the President is not elected, the Bundestag has 14 days to elect another candidate, also by a majority of its members. If no-one reaches this majority after 14 days, then a new ballot takes place in which the person obtaining the largest number of votes is elected. If the person elected obtained the votes of the majority of the members of the Bundestag, the President must appoint him as Chancellor, but if the person elected does not receive this majority, the President may either appoint him or her, or dissolve the Bundestag and call a new general election.
This means that it is possible to have a minority government, if the President appoints a Chancellor without the necessary majority. Not many people know this, however, as it's never happened since the restoration of democracy after the war. (Today, I even had to point it out to a German MEP spokesman on constitutional affairs!)
A minority Conservative-Liberal coalition could therefore elect their candidate (presumably Frau Merkel) for Chancellor 14 days after the Bundestag re-assembles. It could govern, but it would have to bargain with one or another opposition parties whenever it wanted to get legislation through the Bundestag - just as the previous government had to bargain to get its legislation through the upper house.
A Social Democrat-Green coalition, however, would require the support of some others to elect their candidate for Chancellor (presumably Herr Schröder). For instance, the Left Party could say that, while not joining the government, they would be willing to vote for Schröder rather than see Merkel form a government. He too would have to bargain to see its legislation get through, but perhaps with more options.
Schröder sees that his economic reforms, which were initially unpopular among traditional Social Democrat voters, are beginning to bear fruit. Germany has just become the world’s largest exporter and unemployment is beginning to fall. That's why voters returned to backing him in unexpectedly high numbers.
He sees that he occupies the middle ground between the consrevative-liberal alliance who wanted faster, harsher reforms and the Left Party who opposed any reforms. Neither the right nor the left alternative to Schröder gained a majority. Politically, he feels vindicated. Legally, the constitution allows him a way to get back. And if the President prefers to call a new election rather than have a minority government, he is equally well placed to build on the momentum of his comeback. We will watch the situation unfold with interest!