German election explained: why is it always so hard to form a government?

It is quite unusual for the two largest parties in a given country to form a coalition. In the UK, it took the second world war to bring such a grand coalition about.

Grand coalitions promise extreme stability, given that they provide an overwhelming majority. In parliament, it is easy to ignore the fringe voices within the governing parties, as their votes are not needed to pass legislation.

But it is not a good look for a democracy if the government is held to account by a pathetically small opposition. And yet the grand coalition of centre left and centre right has become the norm in 21st-century Germany. Germany was governed by a grand coalition between 2005 and 2009 and another came into power in 2013, governing ever since.

It’s a setup that should worry Germans more than it seems to. The big-tent parties – the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservative CDU/CSU – have haemorrhaged votes over several decades and the big question for the 2021 election will be whether this aberration can be at least put on hold.

A time traveller from the early 2000s would marvel at the idea that the SPD is pleased with its projected 25% in the 2021 election polls and laugh that this puts them ahead of the CDU. To the time traveller, 25% would seem devastatingly low. Social democrats and conservatives are in free fall – but falling just a bit slower than the other side will do for now.

To understand this long-term dynamic, we need to look back much further at how the federal republic was designed to avoid a Weimar-style fragmentation. A new class of German politicians – as well as the western allies – running the show had influenced the outcome of this design but, ironically, there was no clear winner. The result was a compromise between two competing schools of thought: majoritarian (winner takes it all) v proportional representation (percentage of vote share). Hence, citizens have two votes: one for their local representative (winner takes it all) and the other for a party (proportional representation benefitting smaller parties). A 5% threshold was introduced to stop the second vote from ushering in too many small parties.

In the first federal election in 1949, the threshold was only introduced at state level, meaning that if a party gained 5% of the vote in any state, it would make it into the Bundestag. This still allowed for a very diverse first Bundestag (1949-53) with eleven parties, including the separatist Bayernpartei. But the ruling conservatives expressed concern that Weimarian fragmentation was being carried into the federal republic. For the 1953 election, a national 5% threshold was put in place.

Unsurprisingly, the Bundestag stopped being messy and confusing. Between 1957 and 1983, an orderly three-party system operated in parliament, featuring the centre-right CDU/CSU, centre-left SPD and the fully centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP).

These three parties would provide sufficient drama. The small FDP was the only coalition partner available for both giants. The FDP could threaten to join forces with the other side if not given enough power in a coalition government. It was therefore important for the two big parties to keep the FDP out of government at least once to put it in its place. The result was a short-lived grand coalition in the late 1960s, which turned out to be a disaster. Apart from this three-year cameo, the 20th century saw stable coalition governments between one big party (usually conservative) and one small party (almost always the FDP).

1980s: the rise of smaller parties

The three-party system was broken when the Greens made it into parliament in the 1980s. To the surprise of many, they established themselves as a permanent fixture, which signalled the beginning of ever-increasing diversity in the Bundestag.

Soon, the left was further split with the introduction of the Party of Democratic Socialism (the predecessor of Die Linke) into the Bundestag.

Meanwhile, on the far right, the fledgling party Alternative for Germany (AfD) established itself even faster. Five percent threshold? No problem. It had already benefited from the shrinking of the two big-tent parties. Their inability to take the environmental movement seriously and the lightning speed of neoliberal reform in East Germany had taken its toll. A simple two-party coalition became increasingly difficult to pull off. The era of the grand coalition had dawned.

Merkel has been in power for four terms – three of them in a grand coalition. She shined in the glow of an economy booming against all odds while the SPD floundered. The stable economy and a Merkel-friendly media environment helped the savvy chancellor to succeed at each and every federal election. Merkel is seen as a steady hand at the wheel despite erratic U-turns. She most famously experimented with a hardline message in response to the refugee crisis before abruptly changing course after the tragic picture of a drowned child on a beach infuriated Christian groups. Then she changed course again, paying Turkey billions of euros to deal with the problem within its own borders.

For the radical right, it has become much easier to criticise the allegedly overly left-wing chancellor as she sits in charge of a grand coalition with her party’s arch enemy, the SPD. The AfD can claim the established parties are all the same, that politics is just a big show and that an alternative is desperately needed.

The once high vote share of parties narrowly failing the 5% threshold used to increase the number of MPs among the established parties. But with an ever-growing number of parties jumping over the once challenging 5% threshold, it is becoming increasingly hard to avoid a grand coalition or a complicated three-party coalition as the 5% threshold. A system originally designed to bring stability has become a straightjacket.

Alim Baluch does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.