German elections – What’s next in the coalition talks?

The election result is a political earthquake and marks a turning point for German politics. It also delivers a complex starting position to form a new government. Three coalition constellations seem possible: SPD-Greens-FDP (traffic-light coalition), SPD-CDU/CSU (formerly known as Grand coalition), and CDU/CSU-Greens-FDP (Jamaica coalition). None of them is a favorite, all have constraints. There is no playbook for this situation for the parties. We can expect some strong dynamics playing out in the days after the election.

Coalition negotiations are the masterclass of informal politics. There are no formal rules for these talks. However, a political culture has evolved of the last decades with informal rules emerging. Here is my small guide to reveal some of these rules of the upcoming coalition talks:

The coalition contract: politically but not legally binding

Coalition negotiations serve the purpose for the parties involved to agree on the content of their cooperation in government. The coalition contract (or coalition agreement) determines the programmatic content, the distribution of ministries, as well as procedural rules for the day-to-day workings of the coalition. These contracts are political, not legal. There are no sanctions for breaking the agreement, nor is there any guarantee that objectives agreed upon will be kept.

Coalition agreements serve de facto as government program for the parties involved. They provide the common ground for all actors in the coalition. The federal ministries rely on the coalition agreement in the same way that members of the coalition parliamentary groups do when they want to push forward their own draft laws, motions, etc. The scope of coalition agreements varies but tends to increase. The coalition agreement of the Grand Coalition (2018-2021) was 175 pages long.

What is the schedule for coalition talks?

There are no legal requirements for coalition negotiations. The Basic Law (Article 39 II) stipulates that the German Bundestag shall constitute itself no later than 30 days after the Bundestag elections. In doing so, it must elect a president and presidium, unseat the previous government (and ask it to remain in office on an executive basis for the time being), and usually elect a main committee to ensure the parliament’s ability to work in accordance with its rules of procedure. However, over the years, a “law of stages” has emerged for coalition negotiations. The specifics of these phases differ from time to time and are shaped by possible coalition options and party-political trade-offs. Very roughly, four such stages or phases can be distinguished: the first sortings after the election, the exploratory talks, the coalition negotiations, and finally their formal implementation.

How quickly action is taken depends on tactical party considerations. In 2017, regional elections (in Lower Saxony) took place only three weeks after the federal elections, which delayed the start of negotiations on the federal level. In addition, the Conservatives had to resolve differences over refugee policy, so none of the parties were in a particular hurry. The character of exploratory talks can vary.

Sometimes exploratory talks are held only formally, even if the real political outcome has already been determined to a large degree. In other cases, the parties with which formal coalition negotiations are to be initiated are explored with an open end. This time, because of the tight election result and the complex situation, I expect the parties to immediately go into the second stage and start open exploratory talks. They serve to decide for good which parties are to form a coalition. Thus, the parties are expected to dive deep into central policy questions. To join a coalition, each party will have to credibly demonstrate towards its supporters that such a coalition would deliver the goals of the party.

Beyond negotiating, exploratory talks also fulfil the important function of gradually building mutual trust after a tough and conflict-ridden election campaign. The time must be used to lay a foundation for turning former competitors or even opponents into partners (again). Formal coalition negotiations usually take at least three weeks but can sometimes last eight weeks (as after the 2013 federal election). The more conflicts are resolved in the exploratory talks, the faster the negotiations go. Following the negotiations, coalition agreements still have to be formally confirmed by the parties. The various parties handle this step in different ways.

What is the structure of coalition talks?

For coalition negotiations, a typical pattern for a working structure has emerged over the years on the regional and federal level. Using the example of the 2018 coalition negotiations, the bodies can be structured as follows:

A pyramid has evolved as the typical structure of coalition talks in Germany. The numbers represent the numbers of politicians in each round, based on the example of CDU, CSU and SPD negotiating a Grand Coalition in 2018.

Most of the negotiation happens in thematic working groups in policy areas such as energy, finance, foreign affairs, etc. The groups draft the text for what later becomes a chapter in the coalition treaty. Controversial issues are identified and passed on to the next higher level.

  • The Grand Round serves to maintain an overview, make the political mood of the negotiations visible and generate acceptance for compromises reached. Here, negotiators report the status from their working groups about which conflicts will emerge. Each party sends roughly 30 people into the Grand Round, selected to reflect regions, wings, seniorities, expertise etc. of the party.
  • The Small Round is where most conflicts are resolved, where bargaining across policy fields takes place. Each party is represented with its leadership: the chairpersons and general secretaries of the parties, and the parliamentary whips in the Bundestag, as well as important state politicians (such as minister-presidents). Conflicts, which could have not been resolved in the policy working groups, are “escalated” to the small round.
  • The round of lead negotiators is composed of the party chairpeople, which are most often (but not always) also the lead candidates in the campaigns. These three have the final say. This is where the last unresolved issues – policies, the allocation of ministries and the general rules within the coalition – are to be resolved.
  • The steering group is something like the officers’ bridge of the negotiations. It is the political secretariat which compiles the results and possible contradictions or duplications at an early stage. It also is a watchdog for the strict timetable and responsible for organizing venues etc. It is the general secretaries of the parties and whips of the parliamentary groups who are in the steering group. Finally, everything is examined in terms of financial viability. The financial check has a veto power against agreements made in the working groups if those are too costly. Altogether, more than 250 politicians (and even more staff) are taking part in these negotiations.

Both the election campaign and its outcome were exceptional. The complex starting position to form a new government may as well deliver also some innovative negotiation tactics. Christian Lindner (FDP) made a suprirse move at the election night live on TV, suggesting to Annalena Baerbock (Green Party) quick talks between his Liberal Party and the Greens before either one of them would be invited by the potential Chancellor parties SPD and CDU/CSU. As she agreed in her response, the two won initiative and signaled to be potential kingmaker for the next Chancellor. That is why these talks are particularly hard to predict this time. In the end, parties will strive for a coalition that is most promising in terms of holding offices, delivering good policy results, and maximizing voter outcome.

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