The Schleswig-Holstein Question
Whatever your prejudices, you will have to admit that the Germans have two outstanding characteristics: 1) They have a great sense of humour. 2) They have a surprising ability to turn even simple tasks into something completely chaotic.
As such it should not come as a surprise that Monty Python’s Flying Circus is a big act in Germany.
That Germans are usually seen as boring and well-organised is probably due to the fact that not many people outside of Germany speak the language.
The recent attempt to elect a new government in the Land of Schleswig-Holstein can serve as a case in point, but the fiasco also merits wider attention as it highlights some problematic features in the German political system.
The governing coalition of SPD and B90/Grünen lost its legislative majority in the Landtag elections on February 20, 2005. The electoral defeat was not surprising as the SPD nationally has been performing badly in opinion polls and state elections for the last year.
Equally important, economic indicators for Schleswig-Holstein with regard to economic growth, unemployment and public finances were negative. On the other hand the lead candidate for the governing coalition Heide Simonis was more popular than the lead candidate for the opposition Peter Harry Carstensen. (An analysis – in German – of the vote can be read here)
The results of the 2005 Landtag election
2005 2001 Seats 2005
Turn-out 66,5 69,5 -2,9
SPD 38,7 43,1 -4,4 29 seats
CDU 40,2 35,2 +5,0 30 seats
FDP 6,6 7,6 -1,0 4 seats
GRÜNE 6,2 6,2 ±0,0 4 seats
SSW 3,6 4,1 -0,5 2 seats
Source: Statistisches Amt für Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein
Note: As the political organisation of the Danish and Frisian minorities the SSW is exempt from the 5% threshold.
This result meant that neither the SPD nor the CDU was able to form a majority government as the FDP would not enter a SPD-led government nor GRÜNE a CDU-led government. The SSW would not enter any government. Election of a head of government requires a majority of the votes cast in an investiture vote.
After negotiations between SPD, GRÜNE and SSW – which included interventions from politicians on the national level and a fair amount of mud-slinging from the state and national CDU against the SSW in particular and the Danish minority in general – the three parties agreed on a “tolerated” minority government by SPD and GRÜNE formally supported by the SSW. This legislative coalition would enjoy the support of 35 of the 69 MdL.
At the vote on March 17 the Landtag failed to elect a head of government as four consecutive votes ended in a 34-34 draw. Following the fourth vote, the incumbent head of government Heide Simonis declared that she would not stand for re-election but withdraw from all of her public and party offices. This opened the way for negotiations between CDU and SPD about a “grand coalition” under Peter Harry Carstensen which is to be confirmed at an investiture vote
Why did the SDP-GRÜNE-SSW coalition fail at the investiture?
Actually, we don’t know as no single MdL has declared that he or she delivered the blank vote on March 17. The vote was conducted as a secret ballot which also means that there is no way of checking claims from or about individual MdLs.
Theoretically it is possible that all of the CDU and FDP MdLs voted for the proposed government with most of the SPD, GRÜNE and SSW MdLs voting against. Most commentators, however, assume that all MdL’s with one exception followed their respective whips and that the defector should be found among the SPD-MdLs.
We should note that the case of defections in an investiture vote or vote of no confidence is not unique: It happened in Sachsen in 2004 (without direct political consequences even though the result was embarassing to the CDU), in Niedersachsen in 1976 (which led to the election of Ernst Albrecht has head of the State government) and most notoriously in the Bundestag in 1972 (which led to the failure of electing Rainer Barzel as Chancellor in stead of Willy Brandt).
Why would a SPD-politician vote against his or her own party?
Theory suggests four possible motives – office seeking, policy seeking, vote maximisation and party cohesion. Since this is a case of non-party cohesion we can rule out the fourth motive from this discussion. A fifth motive – corruption – should be considered, however.
It may seem bizarre that a representative should bring down his or her government in order to secure office, especially as the SPD would stand to loose the post as head of the State government in a “grand coalition”, but if we consider internal factors, this motive may have played a role.
Heide Simonis was widely criticised among local Social Democrats for bringing in outsiders to the state government in stead of “native” Schleswig-Holsteiners. Ousting Simonis would be a way of increasing one’s own chances of a cabinet office.
If office seeking was the motive, then we should probably seek the defector among leading local Social Democrats. This is why State Finance Minister Ralf Stegner was suspected early on. For the record, both Stegner and Heide Simonis have dismissed these claims.
Media reports suggest that the major stumbling block in the first round of negotiations was education policy with SSW and GRÜNE advocating a reform, that would introduce a system with comprehensive schools while SPD was split in this issue. While the SPD wanted school reform, the party had opted for a gradual process in replacing the existing stratified system.
If education policy was the main dimension in the state political system, then SPD and not SSW held the median legislator. We should then seek the defector among the SPD MdLs who were sceptics with regard to school reform.
This may also seem a strange candidate for an explanation of the defection but if we consider that the incumbent government was seen as a failure among SPD core voters, then this motive may make sense.
The point is that CDU voters were more concerned about the economy than the SPD and GRÜNE voters. Entering a coalition with the CDU might be a strategy to convince right wing Social Democratic voters that the SPD wanted to put a new emphasis on economic policy. If this is the case, we should seek the defector among MdLs with close ties to the trade unions.
Finally, corruption should be considered as an explanation. After the infamous 1972 vote in the Bundestag stories began to appear about CDU MdBs being bought by the SPD to deliver blank votes.
In a further development of the story following the demise of the GDR, it was revealed that the East German Intelligence Service (“Stasi”) had provided the money.
German parties have a bad history of using secret bank accounts for clandestine purposes and consequently corruption should not be ruled out.
The hung vote on March 17, 2005 was made possible by the system with secret ballots which is usually applied in investiture votes and votes of no confidence in the Bundestag and state Assemblies.
Whether or not you would prefer a SPD-led minority coalition or a CDU-led grand coalition in Schleswig-Holstein, it is obvious that the system is open to abuse and also hinders accountability in a representative system.
The secret ballot might have been acceptable in a situation where opposition parliamentarians could be subject to harassment by government officials as under the German Empire. It should be noted that governments in imperial Germany were not based on parliamentary support.
In a modern parliamentary democracy voters should have the possibility to decide on the track record of their representatives and therefore the secret ballot ought to be abolished. And after all: Given the choice, voters in Schleswig-Holstein might have preferred the CDU-SPD coalition to the SDP-GRÜNE-SSW coalition. If legislators want to promote grand coalitions they should amend the State constitution accordingly.
Note: For a German take on the issue, read this editorial from the German weekly Die Zeit