When is democracy not democracy? How many filters can the popular will pass through before the end result is diluted beyond meaning? Is it perhaps when the complexion of a government is decided by the party members of one of the potential coalition partners, voting six months after the general election on whether they like the proposed coalition agreement?

SPD party members here in Germany have voted to accept the proposed coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU and their Bavarian sister party the CSU. The 66% majority in favour was larger than many people had expected, and despite strong opposition from the youth wing of the SPD, whose leader Kevin Kühnert argued forcefully that the party’s policies would be diluted and damaged by a repeat of the previous governing coalition.

The Road to Much (More) Merkel

So Mrs Merkel will live to fight another day, or probably another four years, but at what cost to her, her party and her damaged coalition partner? The messy road to this sub-standard stability has been long and full of political dating games, which ultimately descended into a desperate embrace of those unwilling to face the electorate again but playing the role of “The Caring Politician”, in the popular pantomime “My Country First and Foremost”.

So how did we get here? And were the motives involved more about survival than sensible compromise and stability?

Following the election last September lengthy negotiations took place between the Green party, the FDP “liberals” (more like British conservatives) and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat CDU. Also involved were the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU, with which they share similar values and were in a coalition with prior to the election.

Weeks of haggling were brought to a close by the FDP abandoning ship in a slightly huffy and not entirely believable “principles before power” departure. The so-called Jamaica coalition, named after the combined party colours, would have been a difficult birth given the broad spectrum of opinion on controversial issues such as immigration. But such is the nature of coalition and the previous government consisted of an SPD/CDU/CSU coalition. In a country where coalition government is normal, voters expect compromise and parties comply.

After the initial coalition talks broke down the SPD, under its election leader Martin Schulz, allowed its arm to be twisted and, following a brief courtship, consented to enter into negotiations to form a so-called grand coalition, a resurrection of the one rejected by voters in September. This was a surprise because Schulz had used a post-election TV post-mortem to very publicly refuse to consider such an arrangement. So much for new politics, which mean the same in Germany as they do everywhere else – same old (old) politics.

Opinion in the party was and, to some extent, still is divided about forming a government with the CDU. Some members feel or at least felt, as did Schulz in the post-election blues phase, that a mere 20% of the vote was a rejection of the party’s manifesto and their record in government with the CDU. Better to go away, lick their wounds, regroup, decide what they are for and about, and put their energy into constructive opposition. For many of the 66% yes voters with doubts, either pragmatism about the possibilities offered by being in power, or fear of a likely disaster at the polls should they face new elections, will have helped them put their doubts to one side.


In any case the deal achieved by the SDP leadership was well beyond what they might have expected based on their 20% share of the vote. The party will hold at least three senior ministerial posts, including the foreign and finance ministries, which will allow it influence far greater than that reflected in or, as many in the CDU feel, deserved by, its electoral result. Not bad for a party which had a dismal election campaign and suffered its worst result since 1949.

At least for now their internal differences have been papered over. Martin Schulz is no longer leader, having gone from a post-election no coalition position to announcing his desire to be foreign minister in the new government once the coalition deal had been agreed – a U turn of such hypocritical dexterity that a general consensus quickly grew in the party that he had outstayed his welcome. The resulting bitterness and public sniping from Sigmar Gabriel, SDP foreign minister in the last government, who felt that a deal they had had for him to keep the job was not being honoured, damaged them both. Gabriel’s position, despite popularity in the country, seems to have been damaged by a lack of support in the party.


Politics remains one of the dirtiest trades there is, where high principles are routinely sacrificed to ambition and infighting along the road to power. So nothing about the last six months in the SPD or more generally in German politics is very surprising. But whether such a rocky road to government, in what used to be Europe’s anchor of stability, is healthy for the country or a good basis for another four years of steady as she goes Merkelism remains to be seen.

A party deserted by much of its core support, arm in arm with a fourth term Chancellor who has also lost support in the country and to a lesser extent in her party, yet seems determined to hang on to power at all costs, seems unlikely to provide the confident and consensus building government the country needs. The SPD will face internal pressure to pursue a radical agenda, the CDU to fight its corner in a government potentially dominated by its smaller partner, and both will need to work with a CSU interior minister keen to be tough and look tough on integration and immigration. Germany faces many challenges, including integrating the refugees it has taken in over the last couple of years, and fighting issues such as growing inequality in a society where headline figures on high economic growth and low unemployment do not tell the full story.


What is clear is that the splintering of electorates across Europe, demonstrated in Germany by the rise of the anti-immigration AfD party, has upset the old certainties and ushered in new known unknowns (©D.Rumsfield). The confident condescension previously reserved for Italy and its never-ending collapsing coalitions must now stick in the throat of previous beacons of stability, such as Germany, as electoral complexity becomes the staple diet of democracies across Europe.

Of course one way to avoid this messy democratic deficit, if we can call it that, might be to turn to the UK system, putting aside the fact that this is about as likely as the EU adopting Sterling as its currency, or starting to drive on the left.

Fans of the first past the post system, as used in the UK, say it brings clarity and strong government. Strong meaning a clear result with no need for lengthy negotiations, compromise and watered down electoral promises to achieve a government. Or, to take the alternative view, it leads to a so-called elective dictatorship, where 30% of the vote can be enough for a majority government to impose very unpopular policies on the other 70% of the electorate. Mrs Thatcher’s imposition of the poll tax in Britain being just one example.

In the last few years even this system has started to fail to provide the certainty it used to, leading to one coalition – in British terms something close to a revolution- and greatly reduced majorities, most recently British prime minister Theresa May only achieved a working majority propped up by an informal agreement with a party from Northern Ireland.

Proportional representation is certain to remain the system of choice for most of the EU, apart from the funny old and almost departed British, but as so-called populism or rising right-wing insularity to give it its true name, becomes a continent-wide complaint, most of Europe’s democracies seem likely to face longer and more difficult roads to functioning governments.

Whatever the reasons, however good or bad the motives, something about waiting six months for 446,000 SPD members to decide the future of Europe’s most populous democracy does not look or feel like the will of the people. It feels like a pinch of fear, a drop of desperation and a slice of naked ambition, mixed together in a witches’ brew made for strife and stagnation.