North Rhine-Wesphalia had state elections yesterday and returned a local parliament that shows no clear majority coalition. NRW, as it is often known in Germany, is the country’s most populous state, with roughly 18 million inhabitants (about 10 percent more than the Netherlands).
Initial returns showed dramatic losses for the Christian Democrats (CDU), less dramatic losses for the Social Democrats (SPD), comparatively big gains for the Greens and the Left, along with losses for the FDP that were minor compared with the last state elections but major compared with 2009’s national elections. These same returns projected a one-seat majority for an SPD-Green coalition. Difficult, but workable.
And then the counting continued.
Each of the major parties (SPD and CDU) has 67 seats in the state legislature and needs 24 additional seats for a majority. The Greens nearly doubled their share of votes compared with the last state election, from 6.2% to 12.1%. Unfortunately for the Greens and their preferred coalition partner, the SPD, they won 23 seats, leaving that coalition one seat short of a majority. (The outgoing CDU-FDP coalition would now only command 80 seats, 11 short of a majority.)
What coalitions are possible?
In Germany’s eastern states, SPD and Left have worked together in several governments. In that sense, Germany’s east is like its post-communist counterparts in Eastern and Central Europe. The successor to the communist party has eventually returned to power and performed about as well as expected, sometimes even successfully. Western Germany is another matter. The Left has never been in power at the state level; indeed, it has only successfully entered state parliaments recently. Left and SPD compete for voters, and many Social Democrats remember the persecution that their fellow party members suffered at the hands of communists (to say nothing of earlier history). In 2008, a state SPD leader also tried to overcome a similar situation by forming a coalition with the Left. The attempt led to defections from the SPD, failure to form a government, a caretaker cabinet, and a crushing defeat at early elections the following year. Not auspicious.
The next two possibilities have nicknames that are better than their probable outcomes. The first is the “traffic light” coalition of SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and Greens. At the state level, this coalition has ruled Brandenburg from 1990 to 1994 and the city-state of Bremen from 1991 to 1995. The other is the “Jamaica” coalition of CDU (black), FDP (yellow) and Greens. The first Jamaica coalition at the state level took office in the Saarland in November 2009. Both of these coalitions would suffer from the intense rivalry of the two smaller parties, as well as the probably tendency of the larger party to work better with its preferred coalition partner (SPD-Green and CDU-FDP). The common policy ground available to either coalition is also sharply limited by key positions of one smaller party or the other.
Finally, a grand coalition is possible. CDU and SPD together would have a commanding majority in the legislature. Democratic Germany’s history also furnishes plenty of examples of grand coalitions, at both the state and national level (three of sixteen states have them at present). The risks here are of blurring the lines between the two major parties and thus encouraging voters to seek out the smaller parties. That risk is particularly strong for the SPD, as it is already suffering greater defections to the Left.
An outcome this close is likely to turn on individual personalities. Will the CDU give up the post of premier, or at the very least propose someone new to follow the defeated JÃ¼rgen RÃ¼ttgers? Then the SPD might enter into a grand coalition, even at their long-term peril. Could yellow and green work together in another coalition? An alliance of the little parties might be the tail that wags the dog. And will NRW have a government before the UK? That one is completely up in the air.