In defense of a Minority Government

It’s day one after seven weeks of negotiations for forming a Jamaica coalition of Christian Democrats, Liberals and the Green Party in Germany have failed. Following the rise of the AFD on the far right and the losses of the Social Democrats, the political landscape looks a lot different from what it used to. The typical constellation used to be one where a larger party teamed up with a single smaller party to get a majority in parliament. That no longer works, and even for coalitions of three parties, given how the parties on the far right and left are not considered viable partners by most other parties, the options are few. After four years of being part of a grand coalition, the Social Democrats have ruled out joining another. Hence Jamaica seemed like the only realistic possibility. Now it has failed before it even started, and everybody is talking about a new round of elections.

Everybody except the Bundespräsident. Mr. Steinmeier is appealing to the other politicians’s sense of duty, when he asks them to get their act together and not pass the buck back to the electorate. And while most people seem to focus on how that applies to his own party as well, as some kind of request to the Social Democrats to reconsider their refusal to join a grand coalition, I’m hoping he means more than that.

The Social Democrats are actually acknowledging the voters’s request for change. Voters who would traditionally have voted for them did not, this time around, explicitly to not have another grand coalition. And I am personally one of them. It actually a good thing to acknowledge the voters’s voice like that. And, like the Liberals who were the camel to  break the neck of the would-be Jamaica coalition, the Social Democrats are not obliged to join any coalition. There is no moral obligation to do so, because a majority government is not mandatory. Just because post-war Germany has always had one, that does not mean it has to. It also does not mean not having one is a bad thing.

Yes, a government is more stable, when it is backed by a stable majority in parliament. But hey, why be so lazy?

A minority government has to struggle to find majorities for every law it want to pass. Is that a bad thing? It may seem so, if your first concern is for stability. However, what’s a more stable form of majority than a grand coalition? And people have just made it clear that they do not want that for another four years. They do not want stability at all cost, not if it equals stasis and a government that can basically do whatever they want, because they don’t have to care about any objections. I am personally convinced that both a grand coalition and reelections would damage democracy in Germany. Forming another grand coalition would tell people that even the key form of political participation, an election, is no means of bringing about change. What else is left, after that? To what extremes do you want people to go when they want to see change? What gets the message across to politicians?

Passing the buck back to the voters is also disrespecting what they already said. It is not the politicians’s job to question the outcome of an election or to pout when they do not like it. And it is not their job to go back to the electorate and tell them to vote for something better or different. That also undermines trust in the fact that a democracy can work. The voters already did their job. I may not like the outcome, either, but it is what it is.

Accepting the vote, on the contrary, and going ahead with a minority government, would tell the voters that politicians actually accept the cards they have been dealt. And what is more, the need to find possibly changing majorities for every law to be passed might in fact help returning to a mode of operation where you actually talk about those laws, where you actually have a public debate about such things, where you give people a chance to participate, where you try to convince people, instead of just forcing your party members do agree to whatever the head of the party suggests. Yes, it might be more work to convince people. It is more difficult, when you have to convince every individual member of parliament to join your cause. But that might actually be just what this democracy needs, right now. Somebody who tries to convince me, because he seems convinced, himself. Also, members of parliament that you can go to and voice your opinion to, because they actually matter and not just the party they have signed up with. Can we please have politicians who do not pout because they did not get the toy they wanted but roll up their sleeves and accept that things are going to be harder than expected and instill confidence that they can still make it, just because they have compelling ideas?

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