In James Gleick’s bestseller, Chaos: Making a New Science, one of the recurring phrases is “period three implies chaos.” Grossly simplified, once things start oscillating among three stable states, chaos is inevitable and ubiquitous. In politics, particularly German politics, three parties did not imply chaos, but rather orderly transitions with the hinge party making a switch from time to time. The advent of a fourth, the Greens, didn’t cause structural problems either. But the fifth, now called the Left, is doing the chaotic trick nicely.
In elections in Hesse held on January 27, the execrable Roland Koch led his party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), to 12 percent fewer votes than they won in the 2003 election. In a proportional representation system, that’s an epic collapse. The Social Democrats (SPD), who had suffered their own epic crash in the state earlier, did not take all of the ground back and finished less than 4000 votes behind the CDU. The main reason for that is the new-ish party that has appeared on the left side of Germany’s political system. The party is conveniently called the Left (die Linke). Up from effectively no votes in 2003, they polled 5.1% this time, enough to get over the state’s hurdle for representation in the legislature and gained six seats. With the CDU and SPD tied at 42 seats each, the result for the 110-seat state parliament has been chaotic.
A Grand Coalition is possible, but both SPD and CDU are making irreconcilable demands. Based on the size of the CDU’s loss, the SPD says that the CDU cannot claim the premiership, and even if they could, Koch would have to leave office. He is execrable, after all. The CDU says that they gained the largest share of votes and thus have the right to name the state’s leader, Koch and all. No other two-party coalitions are possible.
There is the so-called traffic light coalition, which involves the SPD (red), the Free Democrats (FDP, yellow) and the Greens (the obvious color). Except the FDP and Greens hate each other with a fine passion and have contradictory programs for the government. There is also the “Jamaica” coalition, with the CDU (black), the FDP and the Greens. Same problem with the traffic light, plus a fine disdain of the CDU for the Greens. Hesse is after all the place where Joschka Fischer was first elected to a parliament, and where he was famously sworn in as a minister while wearing tennis shoes. He was the biggest thorn in the eye of the Hesse establishment, which is to say the state’s CDU.
Which leaves the red-red-green option, featuring the Left, the SPD and the Greens. This is controversial because the Left is the heir to the East German communist party. Until recently, it was known as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) and got most of its votes in the former East Germany. Many of the old cadres still faithfully vote for the Party, and it regularly polls betwen 15 percent and 25 percent in eastern states. It’s part of the governing coalition in Berlin. But the PDS was always an Eastern thing, something the Wessis just didn’t get, and thus convenient as one way to hold an Ossi identity. In 2005, the PDS merged with a leftist “electoral alternative” list headed by former SPD finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. That merger and, I suspect, migration from East to West has made enough of a difference for the party to clear the 5 percent hurdle and get into Western state parliaments. The SPD has been swearing up and down not to form a coalition with the Left or to allow a government in the West to come to power through “toleration” by the left. (And well they might; the communist party was most vigorous about suppressing the SPD and oppressing its activists back both before the war and in the GDR.) But the party said similar things before it took power in eastern states through coalition or toleration from the PDS.
Chaos has not broken out everywhere. Lower Saxony held elections on the same day as Hesse, and returned the current CDU-FDP coalition to power. But the Left got into parliament for the first time there, too, and it’s not too hard to imagine they will upset the apple cart next time around.
More evidence comes from Hamburg, which had its election on this past Sunday. The FDP did not make it into the city’s ruling Senate, so the four parties remaining are, in order of the number of seats, CDU, SPD, Green, Left. If they can overcome their programmatic differences, Hamburg may see the first CDU-Green coalition at the state level. In terms of issues, a Grand Coalition seems more workable, but the principals can’t stand each other. At the outside, red-red-green is also a mathematical majority.
The fifth element is making German politics more chaotic with almost every election.