The German grand coalition: governing without opposition?

By Isabel Winnwa | 3 January 2014

To quote this document: Isabel Winnwa, “The German grand coalition: governing without opposition?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Friday 3 January 2014, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1775, displayed on 19 June 2018

After two months of negotiations, the German election has finally led to the Grand coalition desired by some and feared by others. Chancellor Merkel commands a majority of 504 out of 631 members of the Bundestag, the remaining 127, composed of Die Grünen and Die Linke, form the opposition of 20% of the votes. Merkel autarchy and opposition pro forma, is this democratic? Hardly.

A majority too big to be democratic?

The absolute majority is currently fixed at 316 seats in the Bundestag, Merkel’s party, CDU/CSU, alone holds 311 seats, her coalition partner SPD achieved 193 seats, securing an overly large parliamentary majority for the new government. The opposition is reduced to an almost risible size and deprived of any legislative power, as it can neither oppose legislation by vote nor call for a commission of enquiry or constitutional control because this would require 25% of the votes. The situation in the Bundestag hardly seems democratic if government can seemingly pass any legislation without encountering any credible threat by opposition.

But before despairing about the state of democracy, we should not forget that the German Parliament counts two chambers, Bundestag and Bundesrat. The federal system is such that for every law, the bill has to be passed to the Bundesrat after it has been approved in the Bundestag. In the previous legislature, there has been a majority for the opposition, composed of SPD, Die Linke and Die Grünen, which enacted an effective opposition to the CDU-FDP government. The CDU-SPD coalition has no majority in the Bundesrat, because the power ratio has shifted due to the Bundestag election. The Länder governed by grand coalitions gather 18 of 69 votes in the chamber, plus the votes of the SPD-governed Hamburg and the CSU-governed Bavaria, counting 27 votes in total. But 35 votes would be needed for a majority.

No majority for the grand coalition. Does the Bundesrat save democracy?

The election has produced a more complicated scenario in terms of opposition in the Bundesrat: the majority of the remaining 42 votes belong to Länder governed by coalitions with one or none of the parties in the grand coalition, which theoretically makes them part of the “opposition”. In reality, these Länder tend to abstain in the Bundesrat to avoid internal conflicts within subnational governments.

So far, the situation appears quite comfortable for Merkel’s grand coalition: a “neutral” block that won’t oppose any legislation, and a minority of Länder governments, which simply do not have enough votes to do so. 

Currently, the Bundesrat is no hindrance to Merkel’s grand coalition reign. The grand coalition can take advantage of the fact that the German law-making process distinguishes between statutes requiring assent of the Bundesrat (Zustimmungsgesetz) and statutes not requiring assent (Einspruchsgesetz). In case of statutes not requiring assent, the Bundesrat can object to a bill if no compromise is found. However, an absolute majority in the Bundestag can overrule the Bundesrat objection - an easy task for the grand coalition government. Thus, strategic policy-making, which is clearly one of Merkel’s strength, makes it easy for her government to shape bills in a way to avoid the Bundesrat’s censure even in very sensitive policy areas like pension reform.

What is more, to this comfortable situation can be added a complimentary ticket for Merkel with the next subnational elections in 2014, if Brandenburg, Sachsen and Thüringen elect grand coalition governments.

The role of the opposition - more than just opposing legislation?

Barely 20% of the votes in the Bundestag, standoff in the Bundesrat, no formal or political power to credibly oppose legislation… apparently a guilty verdict for state of parliamentary democracy under the grand coalition. But isn’t there more to an opposition than just its formal role of opposing legislation?

If the parties within the parliamentary opposition are coherent in their expression of criticism and alternative leadership, the role of the opposition can go far beyond the formal exercise of parliamentary control.  Advocating policy alternatives in the media will enable the opposition to influence public opinion in a way that can even be more effective than voting down legislative proposals. Indeed, the current German parliamentary democracy is just as dependent on the media and public as any other western democracy. So if the opposition cares to denounce an abuse of power, the informal proceeding will be more damaging to government and more likely to shape voters’ opinion than any parliamentary censorship could be.

But once again, this crucially depends on the cohesion between the different parties within the opposition and their ability to jointly and credibly advocate policy alternatives.

The opposition is small, is it at least coherent and vociferous?

So one could say that size doesn’t matter as long as the opposition makes its voice heard in Parliament and in the media and forms a coherent counter-pole to the majority. But this is hardly the case, as the current example of Bundestag debate over pension reform illustrates: the grand coalition minister presents the bill introducing the “mother pension” and the decrease of statutory retirement age to 63 years. The opposition has 10 minutes to question, criticize and propose alternatives before the microphone goes back to the two parties of the grand coalition, which can divide the remaining 30 minutes among themselves to self-praise one another on their legislative proposal. Even more worrisome is the lack of coherence within the small opposition.

On the occasion of the aforementioned plenary debate, the parliamentarians of Die Linke did not even applaud during the statement of Die Grünen, let alone support their opposition partner in their substantial criticism of the bill. And this is not an isolated case, as either party of the opposition is equally likely to side with the grand coalition when voting on policy proposals.

Parliamentary democracy is sacrosanct in Germany; it’s the very foundation of the new German state. This makes it even more peculiar that a scenario of a government with a more than absolute parliamentary majority and no threat of overturn whatsoever can be acceptable. The formal powers are very limited for an opposition as small as the current one, and what is more worrisome, their lack of coherence and credibility can permit Merkel and her government free and uncensored policy reign in the upcoming years. The democratic principle can hardly be upheld if the very mechanism of checks-and-balances is inoperative. But the grand coalition will not be able to always satisfy the German voter and the next sub-national election will surely come. And then the tides may change for the opposition, in the Länder and in the Bundesrat. Don't forget that in a parliamentary democracy voters have the final say… 

Index

CDU/CSU: Christian democratic party (centre-right)

SPD: Social democratic party (centre-left)

Die Grünen: the ecological party (left)

Die Linke: the leftist party (far-left)

FDP: the liberal party (centre/centre-right)

Grand coalition: CDU and SPD governing together 

Further reading

On Nouvelle Europe :

On the internet :

  • Focus Online, “Neue Verhältnisse in der Länderkammer. Große Koalition muss ohne Mehrheit im Bundesrat regieren”, 27/11/2013 (consulted 19/12/2013)
  • Spiegel Online, “Wahl zur Kanzlerin: Merkel fehlen 42 Stimmen aus der eigenen Koalition”, 17/12/2013 (consulted 19/12/2013)
  • Frankfurter Rundschau, “Die Opposition ist nur noch Beiwerk”, 19/12/2013 (consulted 20/12/2013)  
  • Die Zeit, “Gysi sorgt sich um Opposition”, 09/10/2013 (consulted 20/12/2013)
  • Die Welt, “Union verpasst absolute Mehrheit um fünf Sitze”, 22/09/2013, (consulted 20/12/2013)

 

Picture that goes with the articleSignature of the coalition agreement for the 18th election period of the Bundestag. From left to right: Sigmar Gabriel, Angela Merkel, Horst Seehofer (Wikimedia commons, 16th December 2013)

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