Friday, 21 November 2014

Democratic Coalition?

The recent elections for the Landestags (State Parliaments) in the Federal German Republic (Seventeen 'Lände' or States, three of them more or less 'City States') produced some interesting results. First it is probably wise to explain that the German voting system permits a direct vote for a candidate, and a vote for a Party. A voter can choose to vote for a 'Party' that is not the one of his/her candidate of choice, so the voters may, for instance, elect Candidate Mustermann of the CDU, but give their 'Party' vote to the SPD! The ballots are then counted and half the seats are 'direct' candidates, the other half are assigned on the basis of a Party's share of the Ballot. Any Party that gets less than 5% of the Ballot does not get allocated any seats.

There are at least seven Parties in play, including the conservative Christian Democratic Union and their Bavarian sibling, the CSU, the Social Democrats (SPD) (Germany's oldest political party), the Greens (Bundenis 90/Grünen), Die Linke (formerly the communist/socialist SED of East Germany), the 'liberal' FDP, the AfD (the German equivalent of UKIP) and, surprisingly to outsiders, the National Socialist Party. Independents can also stand, and are often sufficiently well supported to win a seat. Currently the Bundestag and most Landestags do not have FDP or NS members since neither Party achieved the 5% threshold. Which brings me to the subject at hand.

Thüringen has been battling to form a government for some time, but has finally got one. The Coalition is a three way share, with Die Linke the largest partner with the SDP and the Greens as 'juniors'. The Coalition has a ONE seat majority over the 'opposition' Party - the CDU. The prospect of a Linke 'Ministerpräsident' (First Minister) in any of the Lande since 1990 has raised a number of eyebrows, and evoked a comment from the State President, Joachim Gauck. Die Linke are, of course, being a little triumphalist about their 'win', yet, in fact, they are, however you cut the pie, still very much a minority government. How the next four years of their 'rule' will affect them and their coalition partners, remains to be seen.

Personally I was surprised the SPD in particular (roughly equivalent to the UK's Labour Party in ideology), agreed to enter a partnership with Die Linke. There is a bad history there, since it was a coalition between the SPD and the SED in 1949 that brought the SED into power and gave the East German's the next 40 years of oppression. With the backing of the USSR, and a behind the scenes campaign against them, the SPD soon found themselves marginalised and eventually ousted. Perhaps this is why, in the opening paragraphs of the new coalition, the partners have - at the insistence of the SPD and the Greens - included a paragraph which declares that they acknowledge that the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was a dictatorship - an 'Unrechtstaat' - and declares they all support the principles of democratic will of the people.

Seeing the expressions on the faces of the new Die Linke First Minister and his cohorts as that was read out, it struck me that they were, quite literally signing up to it only because they have no other alternative. The leopard does not, indeed cannot, change his spots. I suspect there will be many difficult battles ahead for this coalition, and it may yet cost the SPD and the Greens dearly.

The fact that three 'minority' Parties can form a government under the German system is seen by many as a weakness. While I agree that it does allow some rather strange permutations - like having the majority party unable to form a government because they haven't achieved an outright majority - in another sense it certainly keeps the politicians accountable. The situation in Thüringen is a result of voters sending a message to the ruling CDU that they wanted change. They have also 'punished' the SPD, which came in third in the election, losing its usual second place to Die Linke. None of the three Parties forming the new government enjoy, normally, a sufficient majority to do so as 'leader', but combined, they hold the majority of seats - by ONE.

As I said, the SPD and the Greens may yet come to regret trusting the leopard that is Die Linke (which has still not apologised publicly for the oppression, the judicial murders, political imprisonments, persecutions and all the other abuses they employed to keep control and their hold on power) in this. The German system may not be perfect in many people's eyes (I still think its better than the UK 'First Past the Post system), but it certainly allows the voter here a wider choice - and it does mean that every vote counts.

Die Linke know they are not popular, and I have no doubt they will be on their best behaviour in an attempt to recover their credibility, so we face interesting times here. It will be interesting to watch!  

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