Coalition Governments in Germany
Sharing Power

There are now more and more options for forming government coalitions in Germany
There are now more and more options for forming government coalitions in Germany | Foto (Ausschnitt): © Andreas Gruhl –

Governments in Germany are almost always formed by party alliances. For decades there have been only very few variations of these coalitions. With this year's Bundestag election, however, the power games could well be more exciting than ever before.

What happened in the spring of 2016 in the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg would hardly have been thought possible a few years ago. After the elections, two parties which had been regarded as enemies for a long time, formed an alliance – the ecologically and socially oriented Die Grünen (The Greens) and the conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union).

This was made possible by the fact that the aims of the two parties had merged closer together – the only Green state premier in all of Germany’s 16 federal states was now driving a whopping great diesel Mercedes, thus protecting and promoting the car industry. In turn, this summer surprisingly saw one of the most important Green demands put into effect – same-sex marriage.

Each Voter will have two votes

The fact that there are coalitions between parties in Germany also has to do with Germany’s  voting system. When the Germans cast their vote for a new Bundestag on September 24th, 2017, they will actually have two votes. The first cross on the ballot paper goes to one of the candidates in the 299 constituencies. With the second and more important vote, however, the Germans choose a party – more precisely, a list of party candidates for a particular federal state. The candidates on this list are appointed by the parties. This proportional representation is the actual core of a representative democracy, as it enables smaller parties, such as the Greens, to send representatives to the Bundestag, to the 16 regional parliaments of the federal states or to municipal councils - provided they manage to receive five per cent of all the votes cast.

The Bundestag began as a three-party parliament, consisting of the major popular parties: the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) with its Bavarian sister party the CSU (Christian Social Union) which always stand for election as one party and which are to be located centre-right on the political spectrum.  Then there is the centre-left SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and the smaller FDP (Free Democratic Party). Over the years the FDP has often formed coalitions with the CDU/CSU and the SPD until, in the last Bundestag election 2013, it fell below the five per cent threshold and was therefore barred from entering the Bundestag.

In 1983, the Greens succeeded in moving into the Bundestag. After German reunification in 1990, another party entered the political arena in the region that used to be the German Democratic Republic under Soviet influence – Die Linke (The Left). It was the successor of the former socialist state party.

dissolution of the popular parties?

In the 16 German federal states, more small parties succeeded in moving into the various parliaments. Among them are the freie Wählergruppen (independent voting groups), but also right-wing conservative parties and right-wing extremist parties. The advent of these little parties soon led to political scientists speaking of a “dissolution of the popular parties”. On the one hand, the CDU/CSU and SPD were losing more and more members. On the other hand, the turnout for Bundestag elections also decreased – from 91.1 per cent in 1972 to 71.5 per cent in the last election in 2013. In addition, more and more people started turning to other forms of co-determination – working in associations or citizens’ initiatives, for example, participating in demonstrations or organising referendums. Some of them were frustrated by the party system and Europe.

They decided to vote more radically.In September 2017, a right-wing populist party will probably move into the Bundestag for the first time – the AfD (Alternative for Germany), whose symbolic colour is blue. As the liberal FDP has good chances again of getting into parliament, there could be a six-party parliament for the first time, which would provide more possibilities for alliances than ever before.
The coalition of the conservative CDU and the liberal FDP is the most frequent alliance model in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Even the first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (CDU), chose the Free Democrats, as the FDP are known, as his coalition partner. There were black and yellow coalition governments overall for 25 years, also between 2009 and 2013 under Chancellor Angela Merkel. In this period, however, the FDP became  unpopular. Black-yellow not only failed to get into all the regional parliaments. The FDP also lost its seat in the Bundestag for the first time in history. In the meantime, however, black-yellow has once again managed to get back into a federal state parliament - in North Rhine-Westphalia.
This alliance of the Social Democratic SPD and the Liberal FDP reigned at the federal level from 1969 to 1982. The Free Democrats, who had until then always sworn allegiance to the conservative CDU/CSU, now, for the first time, helped the SPD to form a government with its chancellor, Willy Brandt. The social-liberal coalition stood for more democracy on the domestic front and, on the foreign policy level, for a rapprochement with the GDR – the other Germany, the socialist state behind the Wall. The alliance ended in 1982 when the FDP withdrew its confidence in the SPD and ousted the government from power. At that time many Free Democrats left the party, causing it to turn into a more economically liberal to neoliberal party. Since 2006, there has been no single social-liberal coalition on a regional level.
The first government formed by the SPD and the Greens came to power in 1998. Gerhard Schröder became Chancellor. This Cabinet stood for social reforms and climate policy. The Cabinet decided to phase out nuclear energy. There are currently red-green coalitions in the city parliaments of Hamburg and Bremen. There was a special case of a green-red coalition in the state of Baden-Württemberg from 2011 to 2016  the “small party” of the Greens had won more votes than the “popular party” of the SPD. A “green” Prime Minister came to power.
The Grand Coalition is a union of the two “people's parties”, the CDU/CSU and SPD. It came about for the first time in 1966, but only lasted for three years. At that time, political scientists found that this alliance was not good for democracy, because it created an all-powerful government and a very small, weak opposition. In fact, citizens protested against this on the streets, calling themselves the “extra-parliamentary opposition”. However, in 2005, it was this form of coalition that chose Angela Merkel as the first female Federal Chancellor of the Republic. In her twelve years of government, she has spent eight in “Grand Coalitions”. At present, the CDU and the SPD are co-operating not only on the federal government level, but also in the state parliaments of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony and Saarland.
A red-red coalition is the alliance of the SPD and the democratic-socialist party “Die Linke” (The Left). This model is particularly widespread in East Germany, where Die Linke” is very powerful. The SPD, after the fall of the Wall, had long refused to govern with this party. This also had to do with their politically competitive campaigns. The CDU gave out loud warnings against the “rote Socken” (red socks) – an allusion to the communist past of “Die Linke”. It was not until 1998 that the first red-red coalition was established in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, later also in the city state of Berlin. Currently there is a red-red government in Brandenburg.
This constellation was long considered unthinkable. The fact that the Greens have given up their reservations about the Christian Democrats can also be linked to Angela Merkel. She has modernized the CDU/CSU in many areas: during her term in office, compulsory military service was abolished, a parental allowance was introduced, after the reactor melt-down in Fukushima the nuclear phase-out was sealed and finally same-sex marriage became possible. The Greens, on the other hand, are increasingly addressing middle-class voters who have  discovered their environmental awareness. The CDU is currently governing with The Greens in the federal state of Hesse; in Baden-Württemberg, a green minister-president is at the helm supported by the smaller partner, the CDU. This coalition is also called a “Kiwi Coalition”.
It took even longer for the three left-wing parties, the SPD, Die Grünen and Die Linke, to get together for the first time than it did for red-red. It was only on the regional level and only in 2014 in the state of Thuringia. That is where Die Linke holds the position of Prime Minister, the SPD and Die Grünen are the junior partners. The construct is wobbly and has the flimsiest majority of one vote. There is another red-red-green coalition at the moment in the city state of Berlin, but, this time, under the leadership of the SPD. The fact that such an alliance has not yet emerged on the national level also has to do with the three parties having very different views on foreign policy: Die Linke criticises European policy, NATO and wants to adopt an increasingly close approach to Russia. Die Grünen and the SPD see this differently on all three points.
SPD, FDP and Die Grünen in one government – this has never happened on a national level, either. This triple alliance is currently only to be found in one state, in Rhineland-Palatinate. Previously, this alliance emerged only twice on a regional level. Other attempts so far have failed due to the liberal FDP not wanting to govern with the SPD and Die Grünen (see red-yellow coalition), as it continues to see itself as an ally of the conservative CDU/CSU. At the same time, the two left-wing parties reject the FDP's economic policy – they consider it too neoliberal.
This alliance of the CDU/CSU, FDP and Die Grünen is named after the colours of the flag of Jamaica – two rather economically liberal, conservative parties with the environmental protection party. Whenever this coalition was being negotiated, it was usually Die Grünen who could find no consensus. In the meantime, this alternative, small party has become more flexible. Now there are quite a few areas where their aims overlap: The CDU/CSU, for example, is now propagating the “Energiewende” (energy revolution) and the FDP liberals have also become civil rights activists, who warn against the omnipotence of Facebook. The first Jamaica coalition emerged in 2009 in the smallest German federal state, the Saarland, which at that time was wittily nicknamed “Saarmaika”. Today this tripartite alliance is only to be found in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.
This coalition is also named after the flag of a country – namely Kenya. An alliance between CDU, SPD and Die Grünen is extremely rare and has only ever come about up to now in the Eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. In the regional elections of 2016 the SPD suffered huge losses. The big surprise was the right-wing populist AfD winning 24 per cent of the vote and becoming the second largest political force after the CDU, Die Linke landed in third place. The election victors, the CDU, however, did not want to form a coalition with either of these parties and that is why it merged with the very much shrunken SPD and Die Grünen.

Possible coalitions after the 2017 Bundestag election (as of 28th August 2017)

The parties have to have more than 50 per cent of the votes to form a government.1 Grand Coalition (CDU + SPD) (63,3 Prozent)
2 Jamaika-Coalition (CDU + FDP + Grüne) (55,3 Prozent)
3 Black-yellow Coalition (CDU + FDP) (47,8 Prozent)
4 Black-green Coalition (CDU + Grüne) (46,8 Prozent)
5 R2G: red-red-green Coalition (SPD + Linke + Grüne) (40,5 Prozent)
6 Traffic Light Coalition: Rot-Gelb-Grün (SPD + FDP + Grüne) (40,0 Prozent