In Germany, coalition-building is the norm, even between eternal party rivals

Opinion: ‘Grand coalitions’ have advantages, but don’t always tackle difficult issues

Gerhard Schröder (left) proved shy, but Franz Müntefering was prepared to take a post-match shower with political rival Angela Merkel. Photograph: Reuters

Gerhard Schröder (left) proved shy, but Franz Müntefering was prepared to take a post-match shower with political rival Angela Merkel. Photograph: Reuters


By the sedate standards of German politics, election night 2005 was a cracker.

Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) finished one percentage point ahead of Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD) and, in a post-election live TV debate, the alpha male German leader was in denial.

As Dr Merkel looked on with a frozen expression, Mr Schröder mocked her: “Do you seriously think my party will accept an offer of talks from Dr Merkel in a situation where she says she wants to become chancellor? Oh please, let’s not get carried away.”

Within weeks Mr Schröder was carried away – into political retirement – and the SPD entered post-war Germany’s second grand coalition with its political arch rival under Dr Merkel’s leadership.

Five weeks before Germany’s next federal election, with another grand coalition a likely outcome, Mary O’Rourke has raised the prospect of a similar alliance for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil at the next election.

Pre-election motions
At the William Carleton Summer School in Tyrone, she posed the rhetorical question: “Is it not time now . . . to note the similarities and to forgo the differences . . . to think the unthinkable – to allow our minds to range over the possibilities which could emerge from the voices of the electorate in two to three years’ time?”

German politicians still go through the pre-election motions of dismissing various coalition options, but the 2005 grand coalition changed the rules of the game. Franz Müntefering, the man who led the SPD into the grand coalition under Chancellor Merkel, put it best: “You don’t say during a football game with whom you’ll take a shower afterward.”

The normalisation of grand coalitions is not surprising considering all German post-war governments, beginning in Bonn and continuing in a united Berlin, have been coalition administrations. Twice in the 1950s Konrad Adenauer chose a coalition even though his CDU secured an absolute majority at the polls. It was no altruistic move, but rather a successful strategy to smother and dispose of a small conservative rival, the German Party.

The fate of Fianna Fáil’s last two coalition partners suggest this is not a phenomenon unique to German coalitions. But, beyond that, many differences stand out. While Irish parties are relatively chaste, tending to stick with one preferred partner, their German counterparts are political swingers. At this stage every German party has been in bed with almost everyone else. And while they all keep their distance from the post-communist Left Party at federal level, those rules don’t apply when forming state coalitions.

One assumption about grand coalitions, apparent in the first CDU-SPD alliance of 1966, is that they force ideological opponents to compromise in the political centre.

However that rule didn’t apply as clearly in 2005. Dr Merkel began shifting ground during the grand coalition but it was during her current alliance with the traditional Free Democrats (FDP) that she dumped decades-old conservative policies – from nuclear energy to compulsory military service – to reposition the CDU as a broad-based centrist party.

Her strategists say she would have pursued this de-ideologisation project – opening up a new coalition possibility to the Greens this time around – regardless of her coalition partner. Another assumption about the last grand coalition is that it hollowed out the SPD, triggering its decline and boosting the Left Party.

But the SPD was and remains deeply divided over whether to disown the Schröder-era economic reforms or take credit for their positive economic effect. The grand coalition merely put these divisions into a four-year deep freeze.

Despite vastly different political systems and traditions, Germany’s experience of grand alliances still carries some warnings for Ireland.

Sizable majority
The first is the distorting influence on the legislature-executive relationship. Having a sizeable majority weakened the Bundestag, say critics of the first Merkel administration, shifting power into a grand coalition steering committee mentioned nowhere in the post-war constitution. This could sound an alarm among those who see the Dáil, by European standards, as a weak parliament vis-a-vis government.

Another problem is how, even with its massive majority, it failed to tackle big reforms – pensions, an overhaul of federal-state competences – that are politically difficult, if not impossible, in a regular coalition.

A final sobering thought about grand coalitions: one of the political parties will probably return to power, regardless of what voters do at the subsequent election.

On the other hand, defenders of Merkel’s grand coalition say the alliance enabled Germany to legislate nimbly to the demands of the fiscal and euro crises, ensuring Germany emerged quicker from recession. If Ireland’s next general election numbers indicate voters are ready for a grand coalition, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have two German options.

They could follow Merkel’s thinking in 2005: “Accept the election result as it is”, act accordingly and banish the treaty from Irish politics. Or they could follow Bertolt Brecht’s suggestion from 1953: Dissolve the people and elect another.

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