Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Teutonic Tiebreaker?

Germany is gearing up for a general election that will be held one year from now.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD, in German) announced earlier this month that Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier will be their candidate for chancellor. The chancellor is the head of government, an office that is called prime minister in most other countries with parliamentary systems.

In choosing a candidate that way, the German parties are different from those in other parliamentary democracies, such as the U.K. Each of the British parties has a leader permanently in place, who will become prime minister, if that party heads the government, either alone or as the main party in a coalition.

By contrast, the German parties have a process closer to that by which the American parties nominate their presidential candidates. They choose a chancellor candidate for each general election. The parties have a chairman and a party leader in the Bundestag (lower house of Parliament) permanently in place. But those leaders will not necessarily become the chancellor candidate.

One reason they can do that is that German general elections are, for the most part, held at regular four-year intervals. The chancellor cannot call an election at any time, as can a British prime minister. Only if the governing coalition loses its majority in the Bundestag, can there be an early German general election. However, there is widespread opinion that chancellors manipulated the process in order to justify early elections in 1983 and 2005.

I wrote here about the West Germans' effort, in constructing their post-World War II political system, to avoid the political chaos that had characterized the interwar period. That chaos was seen as one factor that allowed Adolf Hitler to come to power in 1933. Holding general elections at regular intervals is another concept that they hoped would mitigate against such chaos.

Germany's most recent general election, on September 18, 2005, ended in a near-tie between the two largest parties, the SPD, and the coalition of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart the Christian Social Union (CSU). Neither party was able to forge a majority coalition with smaller parties. Therefore the CDU/CSU entered into a "grand coalition" with the SPD.

Both parties, of course, hope to emerge as clearly the largest party in the coming general election. However, an overall majority for either of them does not seem possible. No one is excited about the possibility of another grand coalition, but that is another possible outcome.

By choosing Steinmeier as its candidate, the SPD is looking to the right end of its left-wing party to shore up its embattled position as the main left-wing party in an increasingly splintered multi-party system.

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