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The Impact of a Grand Coalition on Political Events (November 22, 2005)

Shortly before the Grand Coalition took power, political scientist Franz Walter talked about how a Grand Coalition functioned and described its potential impact on the political system. He was responding to pessimists who believed that the Grand Coalition promised nothing but democratic shortcomings and a decline in the significance of the German Bundestag.

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Behind Tightly Closed Doors

A word of advice for the Grand Coalition: compromises are best made in elite circles that are strictly closed to the public

My political scientist colleagues from the 1968 generation do not like the Grand Coalition. They suspect that the robust remnants of an unbroken Wilhelmine authoritarian culture are lurking behind the desire for an alliance between the two mainstream parties. Similar interpretations can be found in liberal left-leaning journalism. Yet the Grand Coalition was by no means part of the political culture from the Kaiserreich to the end of the old Federal Republic.

Historically, the Grand Coalition was a rarity throughout, an exception always opposed by both left and right. The political culture of the Germans is not characterized by alliances, cooperation, or concordance between worldviews. Instead, the fateful characteristic of the political culture of modern Germany has always been confrontation, camp-style thinking, and the ascription of absolute status to the ideology of one’s own class and basic convictions. In Germany, in contrast to other European countries, the parties were always decidedly programmatic and ideology-oriented, and any and all deviation from their own milieu was exceedingly difficult for them. Germany is one of the few Central European countries in which there was never an extended period of Roman-Red coalitions, as people referred to Christian Democratic-Social Democratic cooperation in the 1950s.

That is why the rapprochement between the Union [CDU-CSU] and the Social Democrats was so arduous at first. German politics is entirely shaped by a profoundly tough and – on account of the unusually high number of regional elections – virtually chronic competition between the parties during election campaigns. There is hardly another country in the world where political parties are forced into this many election battles. The constancy of these electoral contests has preserved the basic stance of antagonistic hatred toward one’s opponent that emerged as early as the nineteenth century. The evening of September 18, 2005, offered an especially good – or rather, depressing – example of this. Supporters of parties that had basically suffered bitter defeat burst into frenetic cheering and enthusiastically embraced each other for the sole reason that their adversary had also faltered. That is what remains of the ideological battles of the past: the malice, the spiteful pleasure, the degradation of the opponent. In contrast, the security of one’s own positively articulated political aims has long since disappeared and is lost.

But the culture of political hostility in perpetual party competition clashes with the other harsh reality in German politics: the omnipresent need to cooperate. Institutionally, the German republic is more interconnected than almost any other regime among the democracies of Europe. Inasmuch, the major social forces – whether they like it or not – are condemned to collaborate. Politics in Germany only works through concerted actions, coordination, and cooperation. Conflict rhetoric – to saying nothing of a real, resolute confrontational strategy – leads only to obstruction and paralysis. Clear-cut decisions, governing without obstacles [durchregieren], and “politics from a single mold” (Angela Merkel) are utterly impossible in this system.

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