Freeing German democracy

German democracy is being strangled by closed-door coalition agreements, writes Helmut K. Anheier for Project Syndicate.

The spectacle surrounding the recent talks to form a new coalition government in Germany is a bellwether of voter discontent. The power games, pork barreling, and compromises that have been reached without public debate all underscore the disconnect between Germany’s mainstream parties and the electorate – driving voters directly into the hands of populists.

As a result, Germany’s political fringe is blossoming. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland and the left-wing Die Linke hold a combined total of about a quarter of the Bundestag’s seats. The emerging grand coalition – which includes the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) – holds just over 50%, making it significantly less grand than in the previous two governments.

The AfD, in particular, can’t believe its luck. The party – which is, at best, only partly loyal to democracy – appears set to become the largest opposition group in the Bundestag. For a party that did not even qualify for parliamentary representation until last September’s election, such a prominent position was beyond their wildest dreams.

Should the grand coalition take the helm, as expected, the parliament of affluent and economically stable Germany would confront the same type of divisiveness that, by shifting power to the fringes and shrinking the political center, has weakened democracy in other countries. This has already occurred in the United States, where the emergence of more extreme voices has undermined cooperation between Republicans and Democrats, as well as in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

This is not to say that the Bundestag will suddenly become as dysfunctional as today’s US Congress. But the seeds of democratic paralysis are being planted.

In some ways, this situation has been a long time coming. Under previous grand coalitions, the Bundestag has served less as a platform for open discussion of diverse views and preferred outcomes than as a machine for passing laws. The emerging coalition’s 167-page agreement, which spells out in striking detail the future government’s agenda, indicates that the authorities’ focus during the next four years will, once again, be confined to enacting previously agreed policies, not on promoting deliberation and reflection on public issues.

This closed-door policy has deepened the divide between the political class and voters. As for what is driving it, there are two culprits: the rise of coalition agreements and the changing party system.

A coalition agreement spelling out some of the main items for the upcoming legislative period was used first by the CDU and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the early 1960s. A coalition committee was established to ensure that the agreed measures made it through parliament.

Over time, however, such agreements became increasingly detailed and complex; what had been a road map became a contract. The coalition committee, meanwhile, became increasingly powerful behind the scenes. These developments, though controversial, were never fully challenged; on the contrary, they became de rigueur for legislative politics in Germany, causing the Bundestag to shift focus from conducting open debate to enacting previously agreed decisions.

Until a few years ago, this shift in focus for the Bundestag was not particularly problematic. But the main political parties have lately been losing their foothold in local communities, with the CDU/CSU and the SPD now relying on significantly lower membership. As a result, their decisions have become increasingly detached from the will of the people.

The CDU and CSU leadership, not bound by a party vote, have already signaled their acceptance of the coalition pact. But one hopes that SPD members reject the agreement on which they are now voting (the postal ballot closes on 2 March). A failed agreement would probably bring greater political instability, but it would ultimately strengthen German democracy.

If the agreement fails, Germany might hold a fresh election – a risky option, to be sure, as recent polls indicate that the AfD could win an even larger share of the vote, while support for the CDU and the SPD could decline. Alternatively, Chancellor Angela Merkel could lead a minority government – the first in the Federal Republic’s nearly 70-year history – which would have to submit every policy proposal for parliamentary debate, with the risk of being blocked.

Under a minority government, every debate could lead to the government’s fall. Yet this could work well for many less controversial proposals, while creating a new tradition of shifting, rather than fixed, coalitions. Over time, such an arrangement could bring significant advantages, even institutional innovations, with the potential to challenge the stifling practice of coalition agreements and closed-door committees to enforce them.

German democracy is being strangled by strict coalition contracts. In order to allow it to breathe, while closing the gap between the political class and the electorate, Germans must focus on creating more open and flexible legislative agendas that require genuine debate, out in the open, in the Bundestag.

This commentary originally appeared on 21 February on Project Syndicate.

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