Is Germany Ready for a Minority Government?
After failed talks between Germany's conservatives, Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP), the future formation of Germany’s new federal government remains uncertain. At this point, three options are possible: a continuation of the grand coalition between the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU)/Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), a call for snap elections, or the formation of a minority government.
As none of the major political actors favor snap elections and large parts of the SPD remain anxious to enter into another grand coalition, the option of a minority government is gaining traction. This would be a whole new territory for Germany. Although minority governments have worked out in some German states, the country does not have a political tradition of ruling minority governments.
What could a minority government actually mean for Germany? What opportunities and risks does it create on a national and European level?
At the National Level
A minority government could lead to a growing influence of the Bundestag, the German Parliament, and its individual members. A minority government would need to organize support for each new bill by persuading the Parliamentarians with good and sharp arguments. Deeper debates on policy questions and discussions in the Parliament will become more important — probably more fierce and interesting. As a result, a new and more exciting political culture could emerge. Trust that was lost through either the often missing open disagreement within Parliamentary debates, or policies that were presented as being “without alternatives” during the grand coalition, could be regained.
At the same time, however, bargaining behind closed doors would likely increase. As majorities would need to be organized for each proposal or law, Parliamentarians could tie their support to concessions on other issues. This kind of constant bargaining without being able to rely on a stable majority can make the legislative process more opaque to the constituencies, possibly leading to greater uncertainty.
Moreover, a minority government poses a danger of normalizing the newly-elected right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and its positions within the political discourse. One such possible scenario: In March 2018, the Parliament must make a decision on extending the cap for refugees’ family reunion. Passed in 2016, the cap limits the right of refugees with subsidiary protection to bring their family members to Germany. The Conservative Party and the Liberals could extend this cap with the help of the votes from the AfD. If so, the AfD could claim this as a first success in implementing one of its key demands to prevent refugees and asylum-seekers from entering the country.
At the European Level
Many challenges on a European level need to be addressed, such as Brexit or a eurozone reform. French President Macron has already presented his proposals for reforms; however, an answer from Germany is still missing, and the timeframe to push for reforms is not very wide. Most of the parties represented in the German Parliament share a pro-European attitude and are aware of the urgency for decisions on the European level. Forming a minority government would end the very slow coalition-building process and could energize the German EU policies and set important impulses for stabilizing the Union.
Even though a majority within the German Parliament could agree upon guiding principles concerning EU policies, disagreement on more detailed directives that need to be debated within the various Councils of Ministers is very probable. Without a stable and reliable majority in the Bundestag, the German government is not in a strong negotiating position vis-à-vis its European partners. A majority of the German Parliamentarians might reject the compromises that German ministers negotiated in the Councils. On the other hand, finding a majority in the Bundestag on a specific issue before Council meetings would leave the German ministers without much leeway for the negotiations on the EU level and also weakens Germany’s position.
A minority government would set a new precedent for German politics. Due to historical experiences, many Germans prefer a stable government and are hesitant to experiment. However, as the lengthy talks between stakeholders continue without concrete results, more commentators now rate a minority government’s opportunities higher than its risks.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.