FDP and SPD?

(Though I don’t blog about German politics much, that is my area of expertise, so please forgive an self-indulgent look at what’s going on in Germany).

In Germany the FDP, or the “liberals” (meaning believers in limited government and lower taxes) have been questioning their coalition with the CDU or Christian Democrats.   It’s not that the coalition government of Angela Merkel (CDU) is going to fall any time soon, it’s just that many in the FDP are starting to wonder about being associated with the government in power during a time of crisis when many unpopular decisions need to be made.

During the last recession, many major western governments changed hands.   In the US Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, in Britain Margaret Thatcher overtook James Callaghan, as in both cases the left lost to the right.  But in France Giscard D’Estaing lost to Socialist Francois Mitterrand, while in Italy the Christian Democrats had to allow a Socialist to become Premier.   The point is that if you are in power during a recession, everything you do will look bad, whether you’re on the left or the right.  Decisions that must be made will be easy to ridicule and condemn, and your party will be associated with the pain of hard times.

Last year as the full brunt of the economic crisis hit Germany, Angela Merkel was spared such a fate as she stayed in power, forming a coalition with the FDP.   But it was a bit of a fluke.

Germany’s major parties are the CDU (in Bavaria the CSU), SPD, FDP, Greens, and the Linke (leftist).   The CDU/CSU is Germany’s conservative party, though these are conservatives who favor national health care, are skeptical of military spending, and believe in tough environmental and safety regulations.   The SPD is the Social Democratic party, or the main party of the left in Germany (though the left is splintered).  Originally they advocated a democratic move towards socialism, though now they support a market economy, claim to be in favor of helping business, and reject socialism.

The FDP is the pro-business, free market party.  They’ve long advocated fewer regulations and lower taxes.   To be sure, even they do not question the need for a national health care system, and they do not support dismantling the German social welfare system.    The Greens are the environmentalist party, focused on civil rights and protecting the environment.  They’ve been skeptical of government power, and have been labeled “left libertarian.”  Die Linke, or “the left” is a party that still espousing a kind of Democratic Socialism, made up of leftists disappointed with the SPD’s veer towards the so-called right, and of remnants of the old Communist party of East Germany (though they do not defend the old East German regime).

When Germans vote, their most important vote is for which party they want to represent them in the lower (and most power) House in parliament (the Bundestag). In recent years the emergence of five competitive parties have made forming a government more difficult.  Up through the end of the Cold War the FDP was generally the king maker, siding either with the CDU/CSU or the SPD.   In the 90s the SPD and the Greens formed a partnership, governing from 1998 to 2005.   After the 2005 election the vote was fragmented, and ultimately the CDU and SPD formed a “grand coalition,” with the major party of the right governing with the top party on the left.

Thus when the 2009 elections came, the SPD could not paint itself as an opposition party able to criticize all that was wrong with the country and the government at the time.   They shared responsibility.  The smaller Greens and FDP could, and their vote totals went up, the FDP had one of its best elections ever.  At that time the FDP had a clear preference to govern with the CDU/CSU and Merkel formed her new government.

After the bail out of Greece and continued worries about the German economy, the FDP is rethinking its image — and its numbers in public opinion polls have plummeted.   First, calls for tax cuts is increasingly regarded as unrealistic given the budget problems Germany faces and concerns about the Euro.    Second, anger about how the government is handling the economy make it lucrative to be on the outside.   Merkel is said to be in over her head, caving to pressure from Obama, or not fully engaged — as one German friend complained to me “she’s not doing anything.”   You can throw stones from the outside, but in government you have to actually make tough calls, and support Merkel’s decisions.

Germany has elections at the state level quite often, and there is where the FDP has started to flirt with the SPD, and is considering the formation of FDP-SPD coalitions.   State level coalitions often reflect local political realities more than the national configuration.  However it’s also a chance to test the waters, and see whether or not a “social-liberal coalition” makes sense.   Theoretically Chancellor Merkel could be deposed by a “constructive vote of no confidence,” if a majority in the Bundestag could agree on a replacement.  The FDP did this in 1982 when they left a coalition with the SPD and Helmut Schmidt, choosing instead to join Helmut Kohl and the CDU/CSU.

So far Merkel has handled the recession probably as good as she feasibly could.  Merkel, like Obama in the US, is suffering less from her actions than from conditions and the need to make tough, unpopular choices.  And that’s the irony of politics — timing is often far more important than what you actually do.   Moreover popular politicians often later have their actions looked at in a much more negative light (such as Reagan’s massive increase in public debt).  As the recession and ramifications of high debt levels have their implications on our way of life, an interesting sub story will be the impact this has on political systems across the industrialized West.   I’ll try to blog about various countries for those who want to keep up on what’s happening even outside the US.

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