Towards a Progressive Alliance

German Bundestag
German Bundestag by @silverringvee from Unsplash

Might the German Model Offer an Example For Britain?

The aim of this article is to take the reader on the exciting journey of events leading to Germany’s progressive alliance. The British reader may then be motivated to consider whether such a system could deliver a more representative government in the UK.

The electoral process and system of German government was explained in a previous article.

The election took place on 26 September, but it took two and a half months to form the new coalition government. In Germany, politically, the period was certainly characterised by excited anticipation among the majority and the media. Every stage was carefully explained and reported in detail. After all, it is important to know by whom and how one is going to be governed.

The German Political Parties

The political spectrum in Germany is similar to Britain: it is classified along the lines of Left to Right, and six parties seem to satisfy the requirements of the electorate in this respect. In addition, depending on the Land (Federal State) and locality, there can be around another 20 parties on the ballot paper (example here in German).

Quite daunting, perhaps, but the majority vote for one of the six main parties, which are, in order from Left to Right:

Party Equivalent in GBPolitical PositionColour
Die Linke (The Left) Left-wingDark red
SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands)LabourCentre-leftRed
Bündnis 90/die Grünen (Alliance)GreensCentre-leftGreen
FDP (Freie Demokratische Partei)LibDemsCentre/centre-rightYellow
CDU/CSU (Christlich- Demokratische/Soziale Union)ConservativeCentre RightBlack
AfD (Alternative für Deutschland)(ERG in Conservative)Right-Wing to Far-RightBlue

To prevent a plethora of parties entering the Bundestag, that might weaken governance, all parties are subject to a 5% hurdle which means the party must gain 5% of the national vote.

One exception is that if a party wins a minimum of three constituency seats (Direktmandate) it enters the Bundestag with the number of seats corresponding to its percentage of second votes nationally even if it falls short of the 5% threshold. This was the case with Die Linke. 

Election Day: Sunday 26 September 2021

Polling stations open generally for all elections between 8am and 6pm. In addition, postal voting was available and attracted more participation for this election. Turnout was at 76.6%, an upwards trend since 2009 (70.8%), the lowest since 1949. The highest was in 1972 with 91.1%. These election statistics are in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper here.

Media reporting continues throughout the day, as in Britain, and from about 5pm the main TV channels (Das Erste & ZDF)(German) begin their continuous broadcasting, with politician interviews, background reports, talking with voters, the latest projections & forecasts (Hochrechnungen), possible coalitions and more. 

Once the results are announced, speculation begins about the possible coalitions that may arise based on the figures. This brings a form of excitement into the political arena, and more importantly a change in the landscape for the populace. During the course of the evening the coalition possibilities fluctuate and may change. It all adds to more excitement to discover which parties may have a chance of being at the helm. 

For the party leaders it is of course not just a busy day, but also the climax of several weeks of tiring campaigning. But on polling day evening they are still in demand as they are all invited by Das Erste to appear in the Berliner Runde studio, one of the many leading political analysis programmes. 

How to spend a pleasant evening

The Berliner Runde is amazing, compared to the end of a polling day in Britain. It is truly wonderful to watch, as all the party leaders are present: composed, polite, respectful, certainly not antagonistic to others present, giving clear, reasoned, thoughtful answers, and with no obvious hesitation, about the possibilities ahead. After all, once the results become final, each leader knows they may be in talks with others present. 

At this stage on election night 2021 it was clear that the SPD would probably take the lead, meaning that Olaf Scholz was likely to be Chancellor. When asked whether he would reveal who he would call to join a coalition, he responded that out of respect for the citizens and their vote, it would not be correct to assume an outcome.

Prior to campaigning the SPD had declared that it no longer wanted to be in coalition with the CDU/CSU. For the Grüne the preferred coalition was with the SPD, for the FDP it was with the CDU/CSU. But because of the SPD stance, it was becoming clear that the Grüne and the FDP were likely to be in a coalition government together. 

Unlikely Bedfellows!

In the Runde, Christian Lindner, FDP, made the astute observation that, as neither of the two Volksparteien (major parties representing a large spectrum of the people – SPD or CDU/CSU) had gained more than about 25%, and that therefore 75% of the Federal citizens had NOT voted for a party likely to present the Chancellor, it would make sense that FDP and Greens should enter talks soon after the results were announced.

Policy was being made there and then. Power actually lay in their hands. This made full political sense, because if those two parties did not find common ground and, as other coalitions were looking unlikely, an impasse in forming a feasible government could ensue. However, both the Grüne and the FDP wanted to be ‘in power’, so it was highly likely that they would have to compromise, in order to be jointly at the helm.

A Colourful Palette of Possible Coalitions

It has become the norm that the different mixes of parties to form a coalition are referred to by country flags or something else that is obvious to everyone in the country. It makes for a very colourful aspect of the elections and, more importantly, allows everyone to use few words instead of trailing off the list of all the parties involved.

The picture below depicts all the possibilities, and likelihood of the coalition coming to fruition. Furthermore, by 6.45pm on the election evening the ZDF had produced a summary of the pros and cons of four likely coalitions (German).

On the Road Again…

Interestingly, the terms used to define the categories were drawn from the world of the Autobahn: ‘clear run’ meaning they were in agreement; ‘roadworks’ suggesting negotiations would be necessary; and ‘danger of accident’ indicating a clear divergence of opinions. (Who says the Autobahn, and the world of the car, does not play an important role in the German psyche?)

Some pre-requisites: all other parties stated categorically that they would not form a coalition with the AfD; the SPD stated it would not want to form a coalition with die Linke nor with the former coalition partner CDU/CSU. 

Nailing Their Colours to the Mast

Bearing in mind the positions stated above by the parties, the most likely coalitions were the Traffic Light (Ampel) or Jamaica. Both the Kenya and Germany coalitions were not likely. 

Chart of possible coalitions following 2021’s General Election. Some are named for the flag whose colors are most nearly represented.

Two sets of results

Every voter has two votes: the first for the direct constituency candidate (as in Britain), the second for the party. Consequently, there are two results. It is most interesting to see how the second drastically affects the first. The first vote for 299 constituencies gave the following result: 

Direct seats143121161630

On the basis of these figures the CDU/CSU is the clear winner, but without the majority to form a government. It would have to form a coalition with either the Grüne or AfD, neither of which were acceptable to those involved.

This map of Germany also gives a very clear picture of concentrations of particular votes for certain parties. 

Map of the electoral districts of Germany, coloured according to the prevailing vote in 2021.
A map of Germany’s electoral districts, coloured according to the prevailing vote in each.

The second vote determines the balance of power between parties. With this vote voters can determine which party or coalition will win a large enough share of the vote to elect one of its members to serve as Federal Chancellor.

Every party can campaign for seats in the Bundestag by drawing up Land lists of candidates. The party submits such a list in one or more federal states, listing in sequence the candidates it deems suitable. If a party wins enough second votes in a given Land to merit the allocation of ten seats and has won four constituency seats in that Land, the party’s top six list candidates take the remaining six seats. 

In addition, there are overhang mandates and balance mandates to be considered. 

To understand this in reality it is best to see the example on page 32 of the Facts booklet (English), as well as the results for the 2021 election (English). In the latter link the results and percentages for the second vote are outlined in great detail, but the picture below shows the percentages who voted for the party nationally. 

Distribution of votes by party: official result – source: Federal Elections Officer
Distribution of votes by party: official result – source: Federal Elections Officer

As a result of amalgamating the first and second votes by calculating the overhang and balance mandates, the final constitution of the Bundestag is as follows: 

PartyCDU/CSUSPDGrüneAfDDie LinkeFDPTotals
2nd vote %24.125.714.810.34.911.591.3
Final total seats1972061188339927362
Direct seats + %143 / 47.8121 / 40.516 / 5.3516 / 5.353 / 10299/100
Extra seats15485102673692436
1 – Extra seats gained by overhang & balance mandates
2 – There is always one seat for SSW = South Schleswig Voters Union in North Schleswig Holstein

Key points to note: 

  • The system is fair as the final total reflects exactly the national percentage vote for each party
  • The smaller parties gained immensely by this; it does mean a vote for them is never ‘wasted’
  • Both the CDU/CSU and SPD had their direct percentage reduced considerably (49% and 36%)
  • Die Linke scraped in, because it gained three direct constituency seats nationally, meaning the total percentage would be taken into account to allocate seats
  • The FDP is perhaps the greatest beneficiary; from zero direct mandates, it gained 92 seats, based on the proportion of voters in the population
  • The extremes or two ends of the spectrum are weaker than before the election; and the Centre has been strengthened (SPD to CDU/CSU), a point mentioned by Lindner in the Berliner Runde
  • All political directions and opinions are represented in proportion to the percentage among the people

The Final Result was Just the Beginning

By late Monday all results had been declared. The SPD had a slight edge on the CDU/CSU, giving Olaf Scholz the ‘right’ to begin talks to establish a coalition. Laschet, CDU, did suggest that he too could form a coalition, but he eventually withdrew his plan. Thus, it was that the Ampel Koalition (Traffic Light of red, yellow and green) began to be a reality.  

Could Such a System Produce a Coalition in the UK?

The calculation here in the UK is that the only way to beat the Conservatives is for the ‘Opposition’ parties (Labour, LibDems, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru) to agree to a strategy, enabling them to realise a progressive alliance.

This thinking is also coupled with the wish to introduce proportional representation as an electoral process. Our current first past the post system of elections makes it difficult to achieve coalition of parties in government. But a different, proportional voting system would be more representative of the different political views in the country, in turn leading to less ‘extreme’ policies and giving a political voice to these different views.

Although such a system seems complicated, in Germany there seems to be no problem in getting the public committed to it. The proportion of the electorate who actually vote remains high, and the process of negotiating a new coalition government is eagerly followed in the media.

Many national media sources produced interesting analysis of the results : Die Zeit; der Tagesspiegel; (German); Politico (English)

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