Germany’s coalition habit

On 17 December 2013, Chancellor Angela Merkel formally begins another ‘grand coalition’ between her centre-right CDU/CSU and the centre-left SPD. Germany’s political system lends itself to coalition governments, both centrally and regionally. But despite often close cooperation between the main parties, grand coalitions between right and left are rare at the highest level.

Dr Merkel’s favoured coalition partners are the pro-business FDP – she governed with them in 2009-13, but in 2013 they didn’t get enough votes to win any seats in the Bundestag. This left her with little choice but joining up with the SDP again, after the mixed experience of their time in office together from 2005 to 2009.

All Germany’s post-war federal governments have been coalitions. Since 1961 they have been one of four combinations:

  • CDU/CSU and FDP
  • SPD and FDP
  • SPD and Greens
  • CDU/CSU and SPD.

But before 2005 (in contrast to Austria and Switzerland), Germany only had one short experiment with a grand coalition at the federal level, in 1966-69. On the other hand, many of Germany’s regional states (Länder) have experienced grand coalitions, or even all-party governments.

German coalitions 2

There are plenty of differences between the 2013 grand coalition and the 2005 one, although (unlike the 1966-69 grand coalition) both were agreed immediately after federal elections.

The 2013 elections gave the CDU/CSU their biggest lead ever over the SPD (311 seats to 193). Coalition negotiations weren’t finished until nearly three months after the elections; and then the SPD gave its entire membership an unprecedented vote on the agreement. This gave it a strong bargaining position despite its small share of the vote. Yet its main wins were on social issues, notably a national minimum wage, whereas Merkel managed to keep her party’s commitments on taxes, debt and the eurozone.

The 2005 elections were held a year early, after Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s SPD-Green coalition lost support. The two main parties gained almost equal results in 2005: 34% for the SPD and 35% for the CDU/CSU (one of their worst results since the Second World War). The 2005 coalition agreement was even longer than the 2013 one (nearly 200 pages) and was ratified by special party conferences of both partners. It clearly showed how little room for manoeuvre Merkel had. After the 2005-2009 grand coalition, the SPD haemorrhaged support in the 2009 elections, and all three of the ‘small’ parties achieved their best ever results in a federal election: the FDP 14.6%, the Greens 10.7%, and the Left Party 11.9%.

The 1966-69 grand coalition was not a notable success. It began between elections, after the previous CDU/CSU-FDP coalition had broken down, and is mainly remembered for an increase in extra-parliamentary opposition and an increase in support for extremist parties in the next parliamentary elections. It was followed by the SPD’s first post-war electoral triumph. The SPD gained enough votes in the 1969 elections to govern with the FDP, even though the CDU/CSU remaining the largest bloc in the Bundestag.

For further discussion, see Arabella Lang et al, Germany’s 2013 election: shaping the future?, Commons Library Research Paper, 17 December 2013

Author: Arabella Lang