09 Oct 2017 | Julian Wettengel

The long road to a new government coalition in Germany

Officially, the new German government is formed after the new federal parliament decides on a chancellor, but the laborious process starts much sooner. German voters expect a period of coalition talks and negotiations to follow an election. These could take longer than usual this time around, with more parties involved in the talks and the Lower Saxony state election likely to prevent early commitments. The Clean Energy Wire explains the negotiation process and provides a brief overview of the path to the next German government. [Update adds date Greens' party conference]

For several decades, Germany’s party landscape has been regarded as one of the most stable in the world, dominated by two large factions, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

A faction has seldom reached the absolute majority needed to form a government by itself, and entering into an alliance with another party has been necessary. For most of the second half of the 20th century, only the CDU, the SPD and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) took part in federal governments. That changed in 1998, when the Green Party formed a coalition government with the SPD, known as a red-green coalition.

This year’s election changed the political coalition landscape yet again. A historically bad result moved the SPD leadership to say it would not be available for a government alliance. This leaves just one realistic option, a three-way alliance. The so-called “Jamaica coalition” of CDU, FDP and Green Party – named after the colours of the country’s flag black, yellow, green – currently exists in Germany’s northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein. On a federal level, it would actually consist of four parties and include the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU.

Possibilities for German government coalitions after the 2017 election, based on final results. Source - CLEW 2017.

The party with the most parliamentary seats in a federal coalition usually gets to name the chancellor and is known as the senior coalition partner, tasked with building the alliance. The smaller party or parties are the junior partners.

This means that CDU party leader Angela Merkel faces the difficult task of cobbling together an alliance of parties with very different policy views. More often than not, parties have to compromise on their election programme pledges. [Find an overview of the parties’ key energy and climate policies in this factsheet.] Much will also depend on the chemistry between the party leaders.

The timeline

The process of finding a new government alliance in Germany runs parallel to the transition from the old Bundestag to the new one. The federal parliament’s opening session has to take place at the latest 30 days after Election Day. It is to take place on 24 October.

Chancellor Merkel’s term ends with the inaugural meeting of the Bundestag, but her government will be asked by the German president to continue to carry out the official duties until a new administration is sworn in. This could take until Christmas.

 Graph on the time period between election day and the swearing in of the government cabinet 1990-2013. Source - CLEW 2017.

1. Internal debates within the parties take place in the first week after the election

Starting on the day of the election, the parties analyse the outcome internally and discuss possible consequences. These discussions take place over night and in party leadership meetings the morning after, when final results give certainty over government options.

In these meetings, the parties also debate other questions, such as the future parliamentary group leadership, and the groups’ schedule until the new Bundestag members convene for the opening session.

In the days following the election, most parties’ parliamentary groups will meet for the first time and elect their leadership. The Green Party holds a special party leadership conference a weekend after the election to decide whether the party is willing to enter exploratory government talks with the other parties.

2. Exploratory talks start about a week after the election

Before official coalition negotiations take place, the party leaderships enter exploratory talks (‘Sondierungsgespräche’) to sound out whether forming an alliance is feasible, and under what conditions the negotiations would take place. The party with the most seats approaches possible partners.

If forming a traditional party alliance is possible, for example between the conservatives and the Free Democrats, these talks are painless. After the 2017 election, however, largely unchartered waters have to be sailed as Greens, economic liberals and conservatives seek to find common ground. Exploratory talks are likely to last several weeks.

Chancellor Merkel said she would first start talks with Horst Seehofer's CSU on 8 October, and then the FDP and the Green Party in separate meetings on 18 October. All four parties will meet for the first time on 20 October. Merkel said she would also approach the Social Democrats, although their party leadership has ruled out a renewal of the currently governing grand coalition.

The size of each party’s team differs. The Greens will enter the talks with 14 representatives from federal and state politics, reports news agency dpa. This would likely include Schleswig-Holstein’s energy transition minister Robert Habeck, who took part in the negotiations leading to the state’s Jamaica coalition.

Upcoming regional elections on 15 October in Lower Saxony, a large northern state that also hosts a large share of Germany’s wind power, will likely delay exploratory talks, as parties swing back into campaign mode.

If several rounds of talks are successful, the parties will agree on a format for the official negotiations. In the end, all relevant party bodies must agree to formal coalition negotiations. Traditionally, this is the federal leadership for the CDU/CSU, but the Green Party plans to take a vote at a special party conference on 25 November.

3. Coalition negotiations can last several weeks

The official negotiations between those parties that aim to form a government have taken from two to five weeks in the past. Participation is not limited to newly elected parliamentarians, but includes other party members like state politicians, outgoing ministers and members of the European Parliament.

When the CDU/CSU and SPD negotiated the terms for the outgoing grand coalition government in 2013, a record 77 politicians took part in the extended leadership circle meetings. 15 of these formed the core negotiating team, including the heads of the parties and the parliamentary groups as well as the general secretaries.

Details of the agreement were developed in 12 working groups, each consisting of about 15 additional party members. The groups included foreign, defence and development cooperation policy, finance policy, energy policy and transport, building and infrastructure policy.

The discussions initially focus on these policy questions, but tailoring the ministry setup and allocating their leadership to the parties is also part of the negotiations. It is left to each party to name the individual candidates to head the future ministries.

In the end, final contentious points are debated by the core negotiating team.

4. Coalition agreement – Don’t expect it before December

The negotiations culminate in the presentation of the coalition agreement that includes general policy messages as well as concrete policy proposals with specific timelines. 

A last hurdle for an alliance is the final decision by each individual party. The grass-roots-oriented Green Party would let its members vote on the final deal, which some see as the biggest risk overall. FDP head Christian Lindner said he would propose such a model as well. CDU and CSU will likely decide in the party leadership.

When all parties agree, the agreement can be officially signed. In 2017, this likely will not happen before December.

5. Election of the chancellor – A new government before Christmas?

Asked if she thought a new government could be formed by Christmas, Chancellor Merkel said: “I’m generally always confident. For many years, I have had the slogan: strength lies in calmness.”

Once the government coalition stands, the federal parliament will elect the next chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. The cabinet is sworn in by the German president shortly thereafter, ending the long road to the next German government.

What happens if negotiations fail?

Germany will not be left without a government. The current administration will continue to carry out the official duties until a new cabinet is sworn in.

Should efforts to form a government coalition fail during the exploratory talks, the negotiations or when attempting to secure party approval, parties elected to the German Bundestag can try to find a different alliance to form a government. The Social Democrats have said that they are not available for a government coalition, but the CDU/CSU might still approach them again if Jamaica does not work out.

If no alternative for a majority government is in sight, the German Basic Law eventually offers the German president the possibility of either naming a chancellor who reaches less than 50 percent of votes in the Bundestag, or dissolving the parliament and initiating new elections. A minority government, however, is unlikely, according to analysts.

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