Building a new German coalition government won’t be easy — here’s why

 In World

Angela Merkel won a fourth term as German chancellor in an election on Sunday that brought a far-right party into Parliament for the first time since the immediate aftermath of World War II. (Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News)

German politics just got interesting. In Sunday’s national election, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) came out best with 33.0 percent of the vote, but an 8.5 percent drop in support leaves the party battered and bruised.

The party that governed with the CDU, the Social Democrats (SPD), performed even worse, pulling only 20.5 percent of the vote. That’s an unmitigated disaster for Germany’s oldest political party.

Throw in strong performances by a range of smaller parties on the left (Die Linke, 9.2 percent), in the center (the Greens, 8.9 percent, and the Free Democrats, 10.7 percent) and an upstart far-right party (the Alternative for Germany (AfD), with 12.6 percent) — and much of Germany woke up Monday asking what happens next.

Predicting who governs with whom

The answer to that big question is not straightforward. Germany is a parliamentary democracy and lawmakers in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, will come together to vote both for the government and, subsequently, the chancellor. Given that no party possesses 50 percent of the seats, that means two (or more) parties will have to work together.

Political scientists have spent a lot of time thinking about which parties are likely to work together in situations like this. An often complex and at times contradictory body of work argues that three things are important if parties are going to come together and work as one in government:

1) The numbers matter. In practice, that often means the smallest number of parties that can get a parliamentary majority club together to form the government.

2) Partners need to have some connections. In reality, the numbers are a starting point, but they are rarely the end point. Just because a coalition is numerically possible doesn’t mean it is practically possible. Policy matters. There, therefore, needs to be a degree of policy-connectedness between the actors in question.

3) And the politics matter, of course. Even when the policy alignments look strong, some coalitions still don’t come to pass. Why? Because politics matters, too. That can come in the form of personality clashes, or it can come in the shape of historical issues that simply make collaboration difficult. This was evident in Germany a decade ago, when the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens were part of majority governments, but personality issues played a significant role in preventing them from working together.

Germany appears to have two coalition options moving forward

First, Merkel could form a three-party coalition with the Greens and the Liberals. The three parties will certainly have a clear majority in the next Parliament, and they are broadly aligned on the political spectrum.

However, that alignment glosses over some deep-rooted policy differences, particularly around the areas of environmental protection, immigration policy and tax. Both the Greens and the Liberals will also feel emboldened by their strong election results and less inclined to forge difficult compromises with each other. Both will look for some real red (policy) meat to throw to their respective bases.

Plus, the Greens and Liberals have historically spent more time growling at each other than working together. Cobbling together an agreement that they can all sign up to will not be easy.

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