Sunday, March 20, 2011

Color Coding

During my recent visit to Madison when talking with the protesting people around the Capitol some of them wanted to know about coalitions between various political parties in the Old World and how they could possibly work. Even the UK, the motherland of the one party majority rule, is now governed by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals in Parliament with the Labor Party in opposition.

In Germany, the situation is even more colorful since we have a whole "spectrum" of parties. The Christian Democrats (CDU with usual 30 to 40% of the votes in elections) are our conservatives where people have recently become uneasy about the adjective Christian as some of the great leaders are divorced and one has fathered an illegitimate child. The other Volkspartei, our GOP*, are the Social Democrats (SPD with 25 to 35% of the votes). They traditionally are the party of the working class. Recently, however, they renewed their pact with industry that had worked so well under the Schröder administration. The SPD eventually understood that elections are won only when firstly the party is appealing to the middle class and secondly is following the rule: thou shalt not kill the cow (industry) that gives the milk (jobs). Such an attitude however never pleased the traditional left-wingers. When the German Democratic Republic (DDR) was integrated into West Germany's Federal Republic in 1990 nostalgic Marxists in the East founded the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS). The PDS in suffering great labor pains eventually amalgamated with the extreme left of the Social Democrats in the West to form the Left Party (Die Linke, 5% of the votes in the West to 20% of votes in the Eastern parts of Germany).
*Not ideologically but just what it literally means: the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands is our Great Old Party as it was founded in the 19th century and still exists. Due to Germany’s industrialization in the 2nd Reich, the number of voters for the SPD increased steadily. Bismarck tried to take the wind out of their sails in creating an old age and health insurance for the working class. When contrary to his plans the rollback did not work Bismarck had the Reichstag (parliament) pass the Socialist Act outlawing the Social Democrats. Later the SPD was admitted again because Emperor Wilhelm II needed the votes of the Socialists for passing the war budget in 1914. Following the lost war, the Social Democrats were the party whole-heartily supporting the Weimar Republic. It was the only political formation that voted in parliament against Hitler’s Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act) that eventually assured absolute power to the Nazi regime. Also today the Social Democrats present one of the backbones of German democracy.

Coming back to the party spectrum: the Christian Democrats traditionally are attributed the black color since they have their origin in the Zentrum, the Catholic Party in the Weimar Republic. You guessed it: the Social Democrats wear red. Since however there is no red redder than red the post-communist PDS is presented by magenta in pie charts. Green for the Green Party (10 to 20% of the votes) is obvious and the Liberals (5 to 10%) are painted yellow. New parties have to take what is left over in the spectrum. The recently formed Pirate Party asking in their program for free internet access to everybody choose orange.

Now let us form coalitions. The hard part is to find a compromised common governmental platform allowing the survival for a whole legislature with a usual small majority in a coalition government against a strong opposition. The easy part is the colors. In the past traffic light (Ampel) coalitions of Red, Yellow and Green were quite popular. When in some of our State governments (Länder) the Social Democrats are replaced by the Christian Democrats a Jamaica coalition may be formed being my favorite only as far as the combination of colors is concerned: Green, Yellow and Black.

More common than three party coalitions are two parties forming a government like Black-Yellow as our present Federal Government in Berlin. The other proofed working combination is Red-Green. There have been successful cases of Red-Black coalitions too. These are called grand coalitions because of the normally large and comfortable majorities in parliament seats for the two parties concerned. In such a combination the Social Democrat Party generally is the junior partner and usually suffers a setback in the following election. On the other hand, an experiment of a Black-Green coalition in the State of Hamburg ended in an electoral disaster for the Christian Democrats.

If you have been wondering about some recent erratic reactions and decisions of our present Federal Government (the hectic dealing with the minister of defense Guttenberg's copy and paste thesis, the sudden about-face in the support of nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster, and the negative vote in the UN security council about the Libyan no-fly zone) you should know that there are upcoming elections in three of our Federal States. Since their outcome is important for the majority in our Senate (Bundesrat) the Government avoids any unpopular decisions that could cause voters not choosing Black-Yellow.

Today is Election Day in the State of Thuringia. Will there be a new edition of a great coalition or are we going to see the formation of a Red-Magenta government?

Next weekend Germany is looking forward to a Super Sunday. I shall vote in the election for the State Parliament of Baden-Württemberg. At the same time, people elect their State parliament in the Land of Hessen. For the latter, it is practically certain that Hessen will be governed by a Red-Green coalition. For my Ländle, however, the result of the election is a thriller: will the incumbent Black-Yellow government survive or will a Green-Red coalition take over. You read correctly: Green-Red means that for the first time in German history a green Ministerpräsident (Governor) would form a coalition State government. Stay tuned for a possible political earthquake in Germany’s South-West. 

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