After many months of tough negotiations, Germany has a new government. On Sunday morning the Social Democratic Party (SPD) announced their decision to continue governing with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CSU). The result is the return to office of a coalition of parties that most Germans voted for.
Yet this process has alarmed some British pundits - sometimes to the point of hysteria. In November, Andrew Neil announced “Germany tonight in its biggest political crisis since late 1940s. Bigger even than UK’s current ongoing political crisis”. Sean O’Grady claimed that the German political system is pretty much kaput.
It would be naïve to deny that Germany’s political class is facing some turmoil, but is this kind of sensationalism warranted?
A big factor in these commentators’ reactions is Germany’s use of Proportional Representation. Whereas in the UK parties can win a majority of seats on little more than a third of the vote, in Germany the share of seats a party wins broadly matches the share of the vote it receives, so the country is governed by a Bundestag that fairly reflects the people.
Prior to September, the governing CSU and SPD had commanded an eye-watering 67% of the vote. Although both lost support in last year’s election, between them they retained a clear majority of the popular vote, and therefore a majority of the seats in the Bundestag.
Initially, the CSU explored an alternative coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats. When talks failed to reach an agreement, they came back to the table with the SPD. This brings us to where we are now, with the grand coalition returning to office.
To people who are wedded to the idea of First Past the Post governments sweeping to power on a minority of the vote, all this talk and compromise can only seem like some kind of disaster. But in proportional democracies it is a normal part of the democratic process.
Indeed, voices closer to the action certainly seemed far less concerned about the negotiations. The German state has continued to function in the meantime, and the economy has been booming - with record investor confidence recorded in January.
It takes time to decide a new government programme precisely because the Bundestag fairly represents the diverse views of the German people. This process could be avoided abolishing Proportional Representation, bringing in First Past the Post, and handing power to a party most people didn’t vote for. But any real representative democracy would be lost in the process. Tellingly, no one in Germany is suggesting this as a solution.
If there’s a crisis in German politics soon, it won’t be down to their voting system – which represents voters far more fairly than First Past the Post, introduces true competition into the electoral system, and ensures that no party has a monopoly on power.
Two of our last three elections in the UK have led to coalition or confidence and supply agreements, even under an electoral system which promises stable, one-party government as its saving grace. What is more, the Conservatives and DUP - with a shared 43% of the vote - do not even have a mandate to act on behalf of the majority of voters. Yet, British pundits still seem bewildered when Parties holding a commanding majority of votes and seats enter negotiations in Europe. There is no crisis in Germany, just representative democracy at work.
Germany, Scandinavia and most developed countries are governed by parliaments that fairly reflect their people. The sooner we in the UK catch up with them, the better.