Triumph der Ampel
Germany's new "traffic light" coalition government
Seventy-three days after the September 26 federal election, Germany has a new coalition government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz. This is Germany’s first three-party coalition at the federal level, made up of the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and the Free Democrats. Since the three parties' colors are respectively red, green, and yellow, and since Germans like to give cheeky names to new things, this is the Traffic Light Coalition, or Ampelkoalition. (Had former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s black-logoed Christian Democrats led the coalition instead of the SPD, it would have been a “Jamaica Coalition.”)
In the Westminster parliamentary system used in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and a number of other countries with single-member district systems with first past the post voting or something close to it, government formation is a staid affair. It takes place typically within a few days of an election, and only requires the head of state or her representative to ask the leader of the majority party in the legislature to form a government, unless the prime minister indicates that the incumbent government will continue in office. While the government must maintain the confidence of Parliament to govern, the House does not explicitly elect the prime minister.
Government formation works differently in continental parliamentary democracies like Germany. First of all, German elections use the “mixed-member proportional” system, in which some members are chosen from single-member districts by first past the post, and others come from regional party lists, so that party representation in the legislature closely tracks the popular vote by party. In proportional representation systems, small parties can win seats more easily, since they do not need to win individual districts outright. In Germany, they need to win 5% of the overall national vote to enter the Bundestag. Single parties therefore rarely win majorities (the SPD is the largest party but only had 25.7% of the vote), so multiple parties need to govern together in order to have the support of a majority of the legislature.
In the Westminster system, a “hung” or minority parliament generally results in the largest party governing alone with a minority of seats. It is always at risk of the opposition parties combining votes to withdraw confidence. Continental systems generally feature multi-party coalition governments in which each party contributes members to the cabinet. Their governments do not form quickly, since the participants need to combine their own platforms into a single plan for government. In countries such as Belgium, governments have taken more than a year to form. In Germany, they take months. In 2018, it took 25 weeks for the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to form their “Grand Coalition” after negotiations for an aforementioned Jamaica Coalition failed. This year’s 73 days was relatively quick, and some of that time was for the Greens (of the left) and the Free Democrats (of the center-right) to negotiate their own differences before talking to the SPD. For those 73 days, Merkel remained the caretaker chancellor, representing Germany at several international summits although she had ceased to be party leader (of a party that was on its way into opposition) and a Bundestag member. In contrast, when Gordon Brown remained prime minister for five days as the Conservative Party negotiated a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, much of the British press demanded his immediate resignation, although Queen Elizabeth would have deferred acceptance until a new government had been formed.
The inauguration of the government on December 8 was itself an unusual combination of the private swearing-in of a Westminster government and the pomp-filled inauguration of an American president. With the coalition agreement signed and in effect, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier appeared before the Bundestag to nominate SPD leader Scholz as the new Chancellor. The Bundestag ratified the choice, with 395 of the 736 members concurring in the choice. Only after that vote could Steinmeier formally appoint Scholz as Chancellor in a private meeting, after which Scholz took his oath of office in the Bundestag itself.
Despite the potential unwieldiness of a three-party coalition, it is likely to complete a full four-year term. The German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) makes it difficult to dislodge a government mid-term. The opposition cannot force an election by defeating the government on a confidence motion. It needs to prevail on a “constructive vote of no confidence” that elects an alternative chancellor. This has only happened once, when Helmut Kohl replaced Helmut Schmidt in 1982, and only after the FDP broke its coalition with the SPD and negotiated a new agreement with the CDU. Slightly more likely would be a maneuver to trigger an early election, which is a complicated process involving a parliamentary vote that has also been used once, by Gerhard Schröder’s government in 2005.
So what did the 2021 election and change of government tell us about the German political system? Changes of government are rare in the Federal Republic. Scholz is only the ninth chancellor since 1949. Between 1982 and 2021 only three individuals held the office. The German electorate has tended to give governments multiple terms in office, and coalitions have generally been stable once they take office. Germany has not been exempt from the trend toward polarization in party systems. The two largest parties, who formerly dominated electorally, only received a little over 52% together. The growth of the far-right nativist Alternative für Deutschland, along with the emergence of the Greens and Linkspartei, have created multi-party blocks on both left and right that feature anti-system parties so far excluded from government. This election resulted in the largest Bundestag ever, at 736 members, due to the large number of “overhang” seats needed to maintain proportionality. As noted, this is the first three-party coalition government.
Germany is often a poster child for movements in first past the post systems to move to proportionality, as it is perhaps the best example of a stable consociational political system. It has been able to limit the influence of extremist parties, unlike other European systems in which the far right has entered government (Austria) or has been able to bring several governments down (Sweden). However, this could change if the Traffic Light Coalition does not last, and the length of time needed to form the government does not sit well with those used to majoritarian systems.
Germany has the largest economy of any European Union member, and the change in government will affect power relations within Europe, including with Russia, particularly on questions involving energy. The new government will face a crisis immediately as the omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 spreads through Germany and sends several Länder back into new restrictions. The new government’s relationship with the United States is also on display early as Scholz addresses President Biden’s Summit of Democracies on his first full day in office.