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
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.
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.