Three weeks after the Bundestag election in Germany and the discussions between CDU, CSU and FDP continue. It is still not clear what the exact policy directions of the new coalition government will be, or who will occupy which ministerial/government posts.

I see an interesting difference in the coalition bargaining between the parties and what has gone on in NZ after MMP elections since 1996.

The German parties are driving hard bargains. Both the CSU and FDP are sticking to their guns and placing demands on Merkel’s CDU that they make concessions so the smaller parties honour their pre-election commitments. There have been several examples of this as the discussions have gone on, for the FDP most notably in measures protecting personal privacy.

But as predicted, the big one sticking point is tax cuts: both smaller parties want them, the CDU knows they can’t really afford them. Merkel doesn’t want to be seen as fiscally irresponsible and run large deficits just to finance tax cuts (and the CSU will not allow this anyway). The result is a sort of Mexican stand-off. This has been going on for weeks. It has finally been decided that there will be tax cuts, the question is how big they will be.

The important point here compared to NZ is that the coalition bargaining is very detailed, and very contested. I am not an expert on NZ’s coalition agreements, but NZ moved away from both these aspects after the first experience with coalition government in 1996.

Then, Winston Peters and NZ First undertook to draw up a coalition agreement which set out most important policy directions in writing. Peters drove such a hard bargain that he was seen to be holding the country to ransom, and the discussions took so long that the country was without an effective government for two months. NZ First ended up going with National, which was the opposite of what they had alluded to pre-election. The coalition didn’t last very long, and neither did NZ First’s (or MMP’s) popularity.

Since this negative experience with detailed, drawn-out coalition bargains NZ has moved to a more flexible approach based on agreements on confidence and supply (settling other issues on a more ad-hoc basis), which would seem to be more in keeping with the country’s Westminster/common law tradition. Helen Clark’s Labour did this with the Greens in 1999/2002 and with NZ First/United Future in 2005. John Key has a similar confidence and supply agreement with ACT, United Future & Maori Party.

The Germans, however, seem happy to persist with longer, more contested coalition bargaining phases in which major policy issues are hashed out in detail after the election. This is more in line with the German tradition of constitutional consensual government, and the German civil law.

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The first unofficial results for the election are in:

CDU/CSU: 33.5%

SPD: 23.3%

FDP: 14.6%

Left Party 12.9%

Greens: 10.2%

This situation should be enough to give the conservative CDU/CSU and the liberal FDP enough seats to form a ‘bourgeois government’.

The results for the two big parties are their worst ever; the FDP has its best result in a decade. This election could also set records for another reason: It seems approximately 5% less people cast their votes than at the last election (which was the lowest rate ever).

Neither the SPD or CDU/CSU is impressed with its results; both are blaming the Grand Coalition for their losing an independent profile and driving voters away or to smaller parties. However the Union has achieved its main goal: to govern without the SPD. Angela Merkel’s position is now very strong and this victory will cement her leadership credentials in the conservative Union against the many ambitious potential challengers in her party.

An FDP/Union coalition should really bring about the pro-market reforms that Merkel campaigned for in 2005 but was not able to enact in the Grand Coalition. However the shadow which hung over this year’s election campaign, huge budget deficits for years to come due to bank bailouts in the financial crisis, will severely impede Merkel’s capacity to enact reform. Tax cuts in particular, a favorite goal of the FDP, do not look likely and were laughed off by SPD finance minister Peer Steinbrueck during the campaign as simply impossible.

The SPD is quite open about its result being a disaster. The question is where the party goes from here which, quite frankly, no one can say at the moment. There will be a lot of long faces in the SPD, where many had hoped that another Grand Coalition would allow the party to distribute a decent number of Ministerial and State Secretary positions; a simple Bundestag salary and position in the Opposition pale in comparison.

Mrs. Merkel, Who Will It Be?

September 23, 2009

So five days out from the election to the German Bundestag it is now fairly clear that there are only two possible results:

1) Another Grand Coalition

2) A CDU/CSU – FDP coalition.

Why? Firstly because the SPD and Greens do not have much of a chance of getting enough votes to form a coalition. This has been clear since before the start of the election campaign and has not changed: As of today’s poll, the SPD is on about 24% and the Greens 11%. Together, 35%. Doesn’t cut it.

Also, as before the SPD rejects a coalition on the Federal (Bundestag) level with the Left Party. Not that that would be possible going by current polling because the Left gets only 11.5%. Add that to the SPD and Greens and you still don’t get a majority.

Finally and most interestingly, on Sunday the FDP leader Guido Westerwelle came out and finally categorically rejected a so-called ‘Traffic Light Coalition’ of Greens, SPD and FDP.

So the question (which has only be slightly narrowed since July) is: Will Chancellor Merkel be able to form a ‘bourgeois coalition’ with her preferred partner the FDP, or will it be business as usual in a Grand Coalition come Sunday? The CDU/CSU has 35% and FDP 13.5% on current polling.

The word is that the overhang mandates –  direct mandates won in electorates exceeding the overall proportion won by the party in the country – will tip the balance in favour of the CDU/CSU and FDP. The SPD are already complaining that this is a misrepresentation through the electoral system, which some are seeing as a concession of defeat.

A reinstating of the Grand Coalition would certainly be a dull ending to a dull election campaign, where neither of the larger parties has confronted the other on any substantial issues of policy or personality. So maybe it would fit.

Duel or Duet?

September 15, 2009

This week we saw the much-anticipated TV debate between CDU/CSU leader and Chancellor Angela Merkel and her challenger Frank Walter Steinmeier from the SPD. It was hoped that this would bring out the fighting spirit in both of them, or at least one of them. However it was, alas, a flop.

Concerned more with patting themselves on the back for their fine work during their grand coalition of the past four years than attacking each others’ policies, the two candidates avoided direct criticism of each other. Even during the debate, the frustrated TV presenters were calling it ‘more of a duet than a duel’.

Both major parties are, predictably, calling the debate a victory for themselves; voters see it as a draw. If anything, Steinmeier surprised viewers – however one can assume their expectations were low. He was rated in polls after the debate as ‘more convincing’.

Apparently, the Greens/FDP/Left Party TV debate was much more entertaining, but I haven’t looked at it yet.

Always good for a laugh, the tabloid paper Bild led an article on the duel with a hilarious pun playing on an Obama campaign slogan: ‘Yes We Gähn’ (Yes We Yawn).

Public enthusiasm for the election so far has been low, and German comedian Harpe Kerkeling has made good mileage out of his satire based on a fictional Chancellor candidate, Horst Schlemmer who is ‘liberal, conservative, and left’ (His election slogan is another interpretation of Obama: Yes Weekend!).

Remember back to before NZ’s November General Election and the scrutiny of National’s leader and future Prime Minister John Key? He was labeled as ‘Labour-lite’ and centrist; his party was careful not to wage war on some of Helen Clark’s more popular policies; the differences between the two main parties were small, negligible even.

And for those who follow US politics – you must have been struck by the partisan divide in both society and politics between the Democrats and Republicans. It is, in the words of a columnist, ‘The 50/50 Nation‘. Heck, the two camps even have their own separate news channels!

Over in Germany, people ask themselves: What is the SPD doing in opposition? (oops, sorry, the election isn’t for 2 weeks. I meant, Grand Coalition.) They could form a government with the Greens and the Left Party tomorrow!

Discussion of all these issues, and some others which I have speculated upon here previously, can be informed by a powerful, but simple, political science model (originating in economics) called the Median Voter Theorem.

Briefly, the theorem is a model of majority decision making which states that the median voter’s preferred policy will beat any alternative in a vote; in a stronger form it also says that the median voter will almost always get his/her most preferred policy. The rationale behind it is too much for this blog and is explained briefly and clearly here, but the consequences are far-reaching.

Median_voter_modelIf we apply the model to the Left-Right spectrum above, we can come to the following conclusions:

1) if voters cast their vote for the candidate closest to their ideal policy, then the candidate who stands nearest to the median voter will win. In this case, this would be candidate A, who is closest to point M.

2) if the candidates are free to choose their policies, they will choose positions which will place them closest to the median voter’s at M; so candidates A and B will move in the directions of the arrows towards the middle of the graph and the median voter’s preferences will be fulfilled.

The theory puts the median voter in the lucky position of always getting what they want, but it also has other consequences – many more than will be expanded on here, but to go back to the examples above:

Key vs. Clark in NZ: parties will choose policies which are moderate and middle of the road; no wonder that they look so similar.

Democrats vs. Republicans in the US: if parties continue to act as above for many years they could create blocs, each accounting for approximately half of the population (see the column from Mickey Kraus).

The SPD and the Left Party in Germany: parties will be very careful not to take extreme positions which could alienate voters closer to the median.

So there you have it. A brief but hopefully not-too-incomplete rundown of the Median Voter Theorem in five minutes. A simple, powerful analytical tool for analyzing party politics.

Wahl Watching

September 2, 2009

Excuse my awful pun: The German word for election is ‘Wahl’. I thought I might post on the federal election campaign over there seeing as I have neglected it for a couple of weeks.

As for how the parties stand in the polls: The smaller parties (FDP, Green and Left) are all looking pretty much the same – between fourteen and ten percent each. The SPD is still looking pretty dismal, but has risen from its all-time low of 20 to 22%. The CDU/CSU is down from a high of 38% to 36%. So not much movement there really.

This is how the Bundestag would look according to current polling (from Spiegel Online):

GermCoal02Sept

However, one development has added a certain element of uncertainty: The poor results of the CDU/CSU in the state elections in Thüringen and Saarland this weekend, where they will probably lose the state premierships.

Of course this has given the SPD some encouragement, but mostly it has just kicked off a wave of speculation on coalition possibilities at the federal level: Will the CDU/CSU prefer another Grand Coalition with the SPD if it cannot form a government with its preferred partner the FDP? Will the SPD be tempted to enter into a (up to now taboo) coalition with the Left Party in the same situation? The list could go on.

There has also been some criticism of how Merkel is campaigning: Not enough criticism of the SPD and Left and not enough real policy debate, say some. Her tactic seems to be to stay the self-confident Stateswoman and win the race to the middle without alienating support from the left.

And what are the big issues of the campaign so far? Well, the two which stick out are Unemployment and Tax Cuts, from the SPD and CDU/CSU respectively.

SPD promises of full employment within ten years have been scoffed at (probably rightly) by the CDU as unachievable – we have seen such promises go unfulfilled by Schröder’s government, they say. The promises of tax cuts from the CDU/CSU have been slammed as unrealistic and unachievable by the man who should know best – current SPD Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück. So it seems like a bit of a stalemate there.

Despite these side-shows the real question is by how much the CDU/CSU will win and whether it will be able to form a government with the FDP. With its poll results very low, and lacking a charismatic Chancellor candidate or mobilising campaign issues, the SPD is still looking very much the underdog.

A ‘Mature’ MMP System

August 16, 2009

The MMP electoral system adopted by New Zealand in the 1990s is even now not without controversy. There is some speculation in New Zealand that voters are yet to come to terms with their new electoral system and that NZ therefore does not yet have a ‘mature’ MMP system. Often, rates of vote-splitting (between parties) and ‘strategic voting’ in NZ MMP elections are taken as positive indicators of voters becoming more familiar with the system, which itself would then be ‘maturing’ through this process (from memory I attribute such statements to Nigel Roberts, VUW).

Hence one could conclude that there are deep changes to come for New Zealand politics as the public adapts to the proportional representation system. I hope that some of the previous posts on the German electoral system (60 years MMP and counting) and the different factors influencing electoral success might have gone some way towards informing such a debate. Their main points were:

1. There are glaring differences between which parties are represented in the Bundestag and the NZ House of Representatives. Some (esp. the lack of a kingmaker party in NZ) are meaningful from a NZ perspective.

2. However, there are different factors influencing parties’ success: Electoral systems, Socio-economic structures and political culture.

The debate over whether NZ has a ‘mature’ MMP system, or is used to its new way of voting, is therefore of little importance. The electoral system in a country is only one factor influencing the country’s politics, and because of this the German example does not offer a set path which NZ is bound to follow (as we have seen in previous posts). Debating whether the MMP system is ‘mature’ or not does nothing to predict future political trends, and says very little about how well the electoral system articulates the preferences of the NZ population.

Far more important are the underlying social, economic and cultural trends which politics inevitably follows. Electoral systems will change as societies change; in Germany for example, they are currently debating whether they should do away with the five-percent-threshold to allow smaller parties into the Bundestag.

In particular, looking at whether voters split their votes between parties at MMP elections does nothing more that ask whether voters understand the electoral system within which they exercise their democratic right. It says little about voters’ actual interests and how they should be articulated in Parliament. This is where any real change would, and should, come from – rather than from spontaneous further electoral reform to skew party representation one way or the other.

A continuing discontent with MMP amongst voters and politicians, or what some commentators see as a lack of ‘maturity’ on the part of New Zealand voters, is not a lack of understanding the NZ electoral system, but a symptom of a more fundamental and long-lasting disconnect, concerned with the other, deeper factors influencing electoral success: Socio-economic structures and political culture.

It is the problem of trying to fit the ‘square peg’ of a pluralist, majoritarian society into the ’round hole’ of a consensus-democracy electoral system.

I return to the comparison of which parties are represented in the German and New Zealand houses of parliament and seek to draw some conclusions about what influences party representation in Parliament. Drawing on my previous posts, and bearing in mind that this is just a blog and not an academic paper, I put forward three possible factors influencing party success in elections:

1. Electoral System. A very important factor in a party’s success is the rules under which it is playing the political game. Just ask the Greens, who were never represented in the House before the introduction of MMP but have been ever since.

2. Socio-Economic Factors. According to a typical left-right spectrum, this should be the key influence on party formation and influence, with socio-economic groups organising themselves politically in order to represent their interests in parliament. Perhaps the deciding factor behind the lack of a powerful extreme left party in NZ.

3. Political Culture. This is a very difficult concept in political science: Trying to define political culture has been described as being like ‘nailing a pudding to a wall’. However it is a concept which has lasting influence and appeal. It used to be referred to as ‘socialisation’ – the way that people were initiated into the way politics is done in their society. Phenomena like distrust of  ‘Kingmaker’ parties in NZ, caused by negative previous experience with them, can only be put down to something like political culture.

And as for which factor is most important: As you can see from the brief examples above, they all seem to be important – in different ways and at different times.

It might have struck some of you that the SPD (Labour equivalent) in Germany is in what looks like a terrible state: awful results in the EU elections, very low results in polls, etc.

And if we look across to Britain Labour is in similarly dire straits there: awful results in EU elections, new Tory mayor of London, unpopular leader, low results in polls, etc.

Back in NZ at the election last year, Labour took a drubbing from National; is no longer in Government; has an unpopular leader; and is polling badly.

Looking across these three examples of Social Democratic parties in the doldrums, there are any number of parallels that could be drawn: The departure of a popular and powerful leader (Schröder, Blair, Clark); Responsibility for the current financial crisis (all were in Government up to 2007); Lack of a clear direction or new policies; the list could go on.

An alarmist could even point to further countries in Europe which have recently taken a turn to the right, most notably France but perhaps also Italy or Poland, and declare the demise of Social Democracy. However, fun as it is to speculate on the future of a political ideology, I think this would be short-sighted and a little over the top.

Social Democratic parties have the longest traditions of any parties in Western democracies. They have, over long periods of time, shown a great resilience and capacity to reform and adapt to changing political circumstances. The last generation of  European Social Democratic leaders mentioned above are perhaps the best example of this but in recent memory in NZ we also had the Fourth Labour government.

In hindsight the greatest similarity, and ultimately weakness, across these Social Democratic parties will most likely be seen to be that they were all in Government for a decade (or in NZ’s case, near enough).

So now we know that NZ and Germany have a similar electoral system and which parties are represented in the German parliament compared to in NZ. What strikes us or is puzzling when we look at both parliaments from a comparative perspective?

1. There is no FDP-equivalent ‘Kingmaker Party’ in the New Zealand House of Representatives.

This is by far the most puzzling aspect of the NZ Parliament from a comparative perspective. As noted in a previous post, the FDP has successfully positioned itself as a centrist kingmaker party which has policies compatible with those of both major parties. As such, it has in the past formed coalitions with both SPD and CDU/CSU and been in government for longer than either of them, or any other party in the German Bundestag.

Why is there no such party in NZ? It looks, after all, to be a successful and appealing franchise. For answers, look to Winston Peters and NZ First. The first MMP election and its drawn-out coalition building phase had the public seeing a ‘Kingmaker’ as ‘holding the country to ransom’ or ‘the tail wagging the dog’, perhaps damning the concept of a centrist kingmaker party for some time.

2. New Zealand has no extreme Left Party.

The German Left Party can be seen as something of a historic relic; a leftover from Communist East Germany. However, it is now also represented in several West German state parliaments and therefore has a broader appeal than might otherwise be assumed.

But New Zealand politics have no equivalent, and there seems to be no call for an equivalent to the Left Party. To speculate on why: The lack of a strong organised labour movement; Lack of industry and therefore large concentrations of workers in single areas.

3. The NZ Maori Party.

Germany has no parties openly organised along racial lines; the only possible exception being those aligned with the neo-nazi movement. None of these is represented in the Bundestag, although unfortunately some are in state parliaments.

The Bundestag and some state parliaments (Landtage) do allow for special dispensation for minorities – they do not have to clear the five-percent-threshold but only win the proportion of votes equivalent to one seat. However, there are no seats reserved in the Bundestag or Landtagen for minorities.

4. NZ First/United Future/Progressive Parties.

The German electoral system has, like NZ’s, a five-percent-threshold which parties must clear to be represented in Parliament. However it does not have the direct mandate rule which gives parties their proportion of seats in the House if they directly win one electorate seat, even if this proportion is less than five percent.

This rules out parties such as those named above, whose popularity depend so much on one person, which do not clear the five percent threshold, and without a direct mandate in an electoral seat would not be represented in Parliament.