Rule #1 when you try to follow German politics is that even if the Germans may have a reputation for being predictable and reliable, then politics on the state and federal level is often both unpredictable and as reliable as a 1960s Fiat.
Hesse is this week’s case in point. The elections for the state parliament yielded no majority for the two blocs which had formed during the campaign – neither the Social Democrats and Greens nor the Christian Democrats and the Liberals would be able to form a new government under the rules of the state constitution.
The government formation problem breaks down in three separate issues:
- The Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, the Greens and the Liberals all made “binding” coalition promises before the election. A government can only be formed if one or more parties go back on their electoral promises.
- In policy terms, education was the major issue and the positions of the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party fit. So do the positions of the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.
- Nobody (for a number of reasons) wants to form a government which includes the Left Party.
So there you have it: The deadlock can only be broken if either
- the Social Democrats and the Greens go back on their coalition promise and refusal of the Left Party and accept a government supported by the Left Party
- the Liberals go back on their coalition promise and education policy position and join the Social Democrats and the Greens
- the Greens go back on their coalition promise and education policy position and join the Christian Democrats and the Liberals
- the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats go back on their coalition promise and at least one of the parties go back on its education policy position
The Social Democratic leader Andrea Ypsilanti supported by national party leader Kurt Beck tried to break the deadlock – or at least enhance her negotiating position – by suggesting a minority government supported by the Left Party. That solution was controversial and the strategy backfired badly when one of the members of the Social Democratic group openly declared that she would not vote for Ms. Ypsilanti in the installation vote. We are now in a situation where leading Social Democrats declare that “Kurt Beck will stay as leader of the party”. And we all know what that means.
Strategy #2 may be that the Christian Democrats change their leader: The mayor of Frankfurt Petra Roth is generally seen as being more accommodating than the divisive Roland Koch and could lead a coalition with either the Greens and the Liberals or the Social Democrats (in which case Ms. Ypsilanti may also be replaced as that party’s leading representative).
Is there a lesson to be learned? Perhaps that parties should be careful about making clear coalition promises before an election as voters tend to mess up things.
If Jens Otto Krag was still alive, he might be able to say a few words about changing your position after making yourself too clear.