How to build a stable coalition government — the German experience

Agree first on all relevant political issues and projects in a coalition, then talk about appointments

14 May 2023 - 00:00 By ANDREAS PESCHKE

Pic of Brandenburg gate?

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The German federal parliament, the Bundestag in Berlin, where coalition governments have been common since 1949.
The German federal parliament, the Bundestag in Berlin, where coalition governments have been common since 1949.
Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

After the municipal elections in 2021, and ahead of national and provincial elections next year, the topic of coalition governments is hotly debated in South Africa.

We all intently follow the debates, and sometimes hold our breath, around the coalition governments in important municipalities such as Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni.

The inception, inner workings and challenges of these coalitions seem to show one thing: it is not at all easy to build a coalition and work together over the whole of a legislative period.

This is not unique to South Africa. We know some of this very well from our own, sometimes painful, experience in Germany.

Since 1949, there has rarely been a time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany in which one party had an outright majority in parliament.

Therefore, over time, our political parties developed some mechanisms to underpin the durability of their coalitions. I would like to share a few of them.

Political not legislative rules. In Germany, coalitions are governed by political conventions rather than legislation. Compliance with a coalition, or a coalition agreement, is not controlled by law.

Rather, it is by political calculation, as parties and their leaders know that they will be assessed at the next election for their track record in a coalition and their capacity to deliver sound policies.

Our electorate does not look favourably on a party or politicians who do not stand by their word and cause the instability that comes with the breakdown of a government.

No Ausschließeritis. Sometimes we hear parties saying ahead of elections that they will never co-operate with certain other parties, no matter what.

Our advice from experience would be caution, because this could significantly limit the options after the election. Some in Germany call it Ausschließeritis — the disease of exclusion of options. In general, democratic parties should be able to co-operate with each other if voters give them a joint mandate.

German parties usually start exploratory talks after the elections (Sondierungsgespräche) to see who can govern with whom. Are there enough values shared and enough projects that could be agreed upon? Often, different and even competing coalition options would be explored in parallel, depending on the election result.

If you enter a coalition, you step into the realm of compromise

Compromise. If you enter a coalition, you step into the realm of compromise. Look at the election manifestos of the parties that form the current national government in Germany, and you would wonder how they ever got together.

But they did, and they even found a positive common denominator: Fortschrittskoalition, coalition of progress. So, coalition building is about finding a common way forward, even if this means sticking to painfully negotiated political compromises.

Transparency and accountability. Once exploratory talks have proved promising, parties in Germany then move on to formal negotiations about a coalition. If all goes well they reach, sometimes after lengthy and contested negotiations, a coalition agreement that covers the agenda of the coalition over the entire next legislative cycle.

Importantly, this agreement will be made public, so everybody can check how the coalition and the constituent parties deliver on their programmes. This public scrutiny makes the agreement politically binding.

Issues first, positions follow. If you follow the local political discourse, it is often more about who gets which job, rather than about what needs to be done. In German coalition negotiations, parties by tradition try to do it the other way round.

Agree first on all relevant political issues and projects in a coalition, then talk about appointments. The thinking is that only if it is clear what the coalition wants to do and achieve during its tenure, ministerial portfolios will be allocated to parties and individual politicians who may have relevant experience for a particular job.

This procedure takes the political sting out of some of the debates over policies and it also ensures that the negotiations are not only about the politics of power but about what is best for the country and its people.

Get broad support and legitimacy. Once negotiators have accepted a coalition agreement, it is important to get the parties on board. That is why in Germany coalition agreements are always submitted for approval by the parties.

Some parties call a conference to decide on whether to enter the coalition on the basis of the agreement, some parties hold a referendum among the membership to endorse the coalition.

No matter how this is done, it is important to give the agreement a broad legitimacy among members of the party or its structures, as this adds to the stability and longevity of the coalition.

It is also worth noting that in Germany this is done on the party level that is concerned. Thus, if the coalition is formed on a municipal or provincial level, the national party, as a rule, would not get involved. 

Create mechanisms to solve disputes. No matter how detailed a coalition agreement may be (the current German coalition agreement covers 178 pages), it is impossible to anticipate everything that might happen during the course of a legislative cycle. Who would have thought that Russia would start an all-out war against Ukraine when our coalition was formed at the end of 2021?

Yet, the Russian aggression fundamentally changed our approach to foreign policy. In other cases, there may also be differences of opinion between the parties on how to implement coalition policies. Therefore, you need a structure and mechanism to solve disputes.

In Germany, this is called Koalitionsausschuss, or coalition committee. It includes the leaders of the coalition, the chancellor and his deputies, as well as the coalition chief whips in parliament. They regularly sit together, discuss the way forward, and solve disputes that may arise between the parties.

Build trust. In the end, it all boils down to one thing. There needs to be a minimum amount of trust between the actors involved. Trust can be built by the procedures that lead to a coalition agreement.

After all, we are talking about long and detailed negotiations over weeks or months that lead to a joint commitment to common goals. More than that, there should also be a shared common ground and shared principles.

In Germany, as in South Africa, this should be respect for the constitution and the values enshrined therein. A coalition does not have to be a marriage made in heaven, but of reason. Reason built on trust. On bridging political divides for the benefit of the nation.

Of course, national experiences cannot easily be transferred from one country to another. Constitutional frameworks, political traditions, established methods and political circumstances vary, even among close neighbouring countries in Europe.

Still, sharing our experiences may enrich our thinking on how to approach the political process, and on building coalitions. It may help us, and our politicians, to arrive at increasingly informed and responsible decision-making.

In 2024, we will have elections in South Africa and the European Union. In 2025, it will be Germany’s turn again. Elections are the reckoning of democracy. Let us look forward. And be prepared.

• Peschke is the German ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini

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