You already know, because Alex has been doing such a good job of making sure you do, that the impending German elections will be as close-run as the related campaign has been shambolic. According to the polls, the Union and FDP will outpoll the currently governing SPD-Green coalition; but not by enough for a majority. What’s more, the Union has been slipping (slightly) of late whilst the SPD are (slightly) gaining. Black/Yellow (48%) are still doing better than Red/Green (42%), but not as well as Red/Green/Even Redder1 (49%).
What’s interesting about all this, though, is the number that’s not being loudly pointed at: Red/Green/Yellow, which is currently the same as Black/Yellow. This is the so-called Ampelkoalition (‘traffic-light coalition’, based on party colours). Down in the comments to one of Alex’s earlier posts there’s been some talk about this as an increasingly likely outcome of the vote, though one commenter begs to differ.
One reason to discount the likelihood of an Ampelkoalition is that none of the parties involved have expressed any enthusiasm for it. Red and Green don’t think much of the idea, and Yellow angrily dismisses it. In last night’s debates — in tag-team format rather than one-on-one — a moderator turned to Joschka Fischer to ask whether the Ampel would be an option if B/Y lost; this right after Guido Westerwelle had rejected the notion out of hand. ‘Why are you even asking the question?’ was Fischer’s deadpan reply. ‘Didn’t you hear the man? If B/Y lose, Westerwelle will continue in his role as a great leader of the opposition.’ (It will be a pity if Fischer has to leave government, if only because we will then have fewer of these starkly anhydrous remarks to enjoy.)
And indeed, an Ampelkoalition would not be the risk-averse punter’s bet. There’s more than just electoral calculus gunning against it. There is also a psychological barrier — Yellow hates Green with an undying passion.
That might strike you as odd. The FDP claim to be Germany’s liberal party, and the Greens (especially these days) are a lot less economically illiberal than the SPD, with whom the FDP have been pleased to govern before. (One could even argue that, on some points, the Greens are less illiberal than the Union, especially the Bavarian bits of it.) It might be ideologically tough for the FDP to get into bed with the Greens, but surely there have been more awkward cohabitations. I suspect that what informs Yellow distaste for Green is less ideological than personal. The Greens, you see, robbed the FDP of its monopoly position as kingmaker and in recent years have (at the federal level, at least) usurped it altogether. I don’t know whether IBM hates Microsoft, but if they do, the hatred might not be based altogether on differences of opinion about operating systems. [UPDATE: it is only fair to note that the feeling is largely mutual; most Greens have very little time for the FDP.]
As long as R/G/Y does not outperform B/Y, then that one commenter’s scepticism is well-grounded. But what if the Ampel actually outpolls B/Y; what if B/Y fail to achieve a majority, but both R/G/Y and R/G/E-R would have one? In that case, I expect we’d suddenly hear a lot of talk from the FDP about pragmatic choices and the need to take perhaps unwelcome steps to help keep the Left Party out of government. Mind you I think this would be a tough choice all round, and both R/G and the FDP would need as many as ten seconds to make up their minds. But the FDP’s loud insistence that they would never, ever enter into an Ampelkoalition is the one thing that doesn’t make me think that outcome unlikely. After all, the two other things that conventional wisdom sees at this point as likely outcomes of the elections — a grand coalition or SPD/Greens/Left — are also things everybody insists they will never agree to.
My own expectation, though, is that an older conventional wisdom (at least a couple of weeks older) is correct — that the Union and FDP will, just barely, squeak into government. And if so, then my expectation is that they will govern not very differently to Red/Green; and not very successfully; and probably not for very long.
1 German political parties are traditionally colour-coded: black for conservatives, red for social democrats, yellow for liberals. The Greens picked their own colour when they came into being, and for NPD and the like one has the historical precedent of brown. But what to do about the PDS, the old East German ruling party with a post-Mauerfall coat of democratic whitewash? And what about the Left Party, the new and improved PDS for easterners who miss being governed by an arrogant prick from the Saarland? Red is already taken, and television graphics usually use purple.