Thursday, September 3, 2009

Daring More Democracy

There has been a lot of fretting about the evolution of the German party system--mainly by publications like the influential Economist newsmagazine and academics. Many articles have been published about the decline of the catch-all Volksparteien. In fact, the share of the vote commanded by the SPD and CDU/CSU has fallen back to the level of 1949 with less than 70% of the total vote in 2005. Current polls put these parties' combined strength at a mere 60%. These levels of support are down from a peak of 90% in 1972. Some pundits express only a little concern revolving around challenges in forming and maintaining more complicated (three-party) coalitions. But underneath the surface there are diffuse fears that another "Weimar-esque" situation may be developing, including extreme partisan fragmentation, unwieldy coalitions, instability and legislative gridlock.

Of course it has already been 53 years since Swiss journalist Fritz Rene Altmann proclaimed that "Bonn ist nicht Weimar." Berlin isn't Weimar either--even if the capital's scene is as fabulous again today as it was in the 1920s. There is no comparison between the social, economic and political situation then and now. Where are the Junkers? The militarists? The revanchists? The vanguard of the proletariat? (Well, there are the surging Linke, but even they pale in comparison to the communists of yesteryear). There is no flawed constitution with an overly permissive electoral system, semi-presidentialism and the "emergency powers" clause. And of course contemporary Germany is surrounded by friendly countries--all deeply and irrevocably embedded in multilateral institutions.

So, why are so many so scared of the decline of the two big parties and the rise of smaller ones? Perhaps the easiest explanation is a basic risk and change aversion amongst many Germans. There was something soothing and predictable about one of the two big parties dominating any coalition government, the long tenures in power (the country only had its first complete partisan alternation in 1998), and the "consensus" politics that often resulted. But maybe consensus is over-rated. Maybe it is no longer possible--resource constraints make it impossible to buy off all relevant interests (something recent German governments have also learned at the EU level). And maybe such hyper-stability is no longer necessary in a deeply democratic and stable polity like Germany's.

Perhaps an even simpler explanation is that the current situation is caused or exacerbated by the grand coalition government. Political scientists have long noted that any such over-sized coalition will lead to declining support for the parties in government and an empowerment of any oppositional forces. Certainly, this is the conventional wisdom from the first grand coalition of 1966-1969, that facilitated a 4.3% result for the right-radical NPD in 1969 (the closest a right radical party has ever come to gaining representation in the Bundestag).

This time it is the left that is exposed. Clearly, the SPD's time in power (1998-present) has led it to the center (right), leaving its left flank extremely vulnerable. This hole in the political spectrum has now been filled by the Left Party, which is currently polling 11 % (the same as the Greens). One could also point out that the Greens are also partially responsible for this situation, given their widely documented move to the middle. In any case, this is the second time in several decades that the SPD has been unable to thwart or co-opt new leftist challenges--earlier with the Green Party. Perhaps all of the criticism and the poor poll results that SPD has gained are deserved--and maybe they do not go deep enough--given these two epochal political failures.

Or maybe Germany is just becoming more "normal." I know, I know--"normalization" is a bad word in the German context--verboten. Yet, I have always thought that there is nothing wrong with wanting to become more like others--when the others are stable, relatively tolerant liberal democracies. Several political scientists have made exactly this point--noting that the more typical continental European pattern is to have left and right blocs with multiple and changing parties inhabiting the partisan spectrum. How often have French or Italian center-right parties changed their names in recent years?

And what's wrong with this situation? I think this is preferable over most alternatives. Presidential systems have real flaws and two-party systems à la Britain or the US also have major drawbacks--mainly because there are multiple, hard-to-control factions politicking and making deals behind closed doors, instead of ideologically cohesive and transparent parties. Moreover, heterogeneous groups must coexist--think of libertarians and social conservatives in the US Republican Party. It is better to negotiate inevitable differences of opinion in the light of day.

Thus, the emergent multi-party system in Germany should be welcomed as a 21st century way to "dare more democracy."

--Eric Langenbacher

No comments:

Post a Comment