The question if a party leader during an election campaign should declare her or his preferences for partners in a possible coalition is a tricky one: On the one hand, a declaration of future cooperation could give potential voters a clearer image of what kind of policies that would follow from an electoral victory for one or the other side. On the other hand, such declarations also circumscribe the opportunities to make to most of the election result for the party.
A classic Danish example is the 1966 election where Social Democratic leader Jens Otto Krag declared that the Social Democrats would not seek cooperation with left-wing parties (i.e. SF) after an election. The background was that the Social Democrats (correctly) feared losing votes to SF and my guess is that Krag and the rest of the Social Democratic leadership (again correctly, in my opinion) assumed that an electorally weakened Social Democratic party would also be weakened in negotiations with the centre-right parties in the Folketing. In this case, closing an alternative was a strategy for giving the party a stronger position afterwards.
As it is, SD and SF surprisingly won a parliamentary majority which led to the “Red Cabinet” and accusations against Krag for being an opportunist. Krag’s famous defence “You have a standpoint until you chose another” did not go down well with the media and the public. What we should point out is that Krag tried to do the best in the situation, both from an electoral and a policy perspective: Moving to the right could alienate more disgruntled Social Democratic voters and SF could be closer than the centre-right to the Social Democrats on a number of policy issues. (An the there was of course also the infamous goal of bringing SF “under the yoke” of parliamentary responsibility with the hope of exposing SF’s presumed lack of honesty and efficacy)
Anyway, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel did something unusual in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung where she declared that while continuing the coalition with FDP was her (and the CDU’s) preference, she would not rule out entering a second grand coalition with the SPD, should CDU/CSU and FDP fail to win a majority.
Merkel is a shrewd politician but this definitely is out of the ordinary, especially as FDP is fighting for its parliamentary existence and SPD is more or less openly rejecting the idea of repeating the 2005-2009 coalition. What is going on here?
First of all, Merkel is in fact being unusually honest: If CDU/CSU and FDP fail to win a majority in the Bundestag, a CDU/CSU-SPD coalition would be the only realistic alternative with Rot-Rot-Grün1 , Schwarz-Grün2 and Jamaika (Schwartz-Gelb-Grün)3 effectively being ruled out on the federal level.
But she is also acting strategically here: Traditionally, CDU/CSU and FDP share a spectrum of the electorate with some Union voters opting for FDP to secure a Schwartz-Gelb coalition. This time, FDP needs the help of the senior partner more than ever and the real question is if a) Merkel’s statement will help boost the combined vote for Schwartz-Gelb and b) boost the FDP’s share of the vote sufficiently to secure FDP’s continued presence in the Bundestag. But like any true fox, Merkel has more than one exit from her lair and entering a coalition with SPD after the election will not appear to be a defeat for her. And finally, the statement can also act as a check on FDP’s ambitions and put the party in a more humble role compared to 2009.
Kai Arzheimer has done some interesting calculations on German opinion polls and comments on the chances of FDP to regain representation and CDU/CSU and FDP to retain the majority in the Bundestag after the election. Finally, some Social Democrats have also begun acting as if a new grand coalition is the party’s only real chance of winning a place in government.
And in any event, the series of victories by the Social Democrats in state elections (CDU looks set to lose control of Hesse in September) will mean that any federal government will depend on cooperating with the SPD and the Greens in the Bundesrat. Germany, effectively, has and will continue to be governed by a grand coalition.