Germany's "Grand Coalition" Government: Prospects and Implications

RL33252 -- Germany's "Grand Coalition" Government: Prospects and Implications

January 17, 2006



A "grand coalition" government of Germany's two largest parties, the Christian Democrat Union/Christian Socialist Union (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) led by CDU candidate Angela Merkel took office on November 22, 2005, after the German federal election of September 18, 2005, had produced no clear winner. Some experts believe that the coalition will be fragile, short lived, and will accomplish little with each side trying to gain political advantage over the other. Such negative expectations are not shared by other analysts who believe that only such a large coalition can implement potentially painful but needed economic and social reforms, assuming that it can overcome partisan politics.

The most difficult and crucial areas on which the coalition must cooperate if the government is to succeed involve social and economic policy. Government success will be important, not just for Germany, but also for Europe and global economic health. Experts believe that Angela Merkel, as Chancellor, wants to speed domestic social and economic reforms. It is not clear whether she will have broader domestic support to do so, especially among the SPD base.

Many observers expect more continuity than change in German foreign policy under the "grand coalition" government. On most issues, the CDU/CSU and the SPD are not far apart. Germany is expected to continue to give priority to multilateral approaches to solving international problems. Many expect Chancellor Merkel to balance traditional strong Franco-German cooperation within the EU with closer ties to the United Kingdom, and other countries such as Italy, Spain, and Poland. She is expected to pursue European integration as a corollary rather than in opposition to the transatlantic partnership.

U.S. officials and many experts hope for improvement in U.S.-German bilateral relations under the Merkel-led government. Merkel has given priority to reducing the strains in transatlantic relations, as well as improving negative German public opinion regarding the United States. The new German government is unlikely to fundamentally change the German stand on Iraq, meaning that it will provide some financial and training assistance outside Iraq, but no military personnel on the ground. It is likely to continue to take a lead in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Chancellor Merkel is expected to continue Germany's domestic and international efforts to combat terrorism. The United States, Germany, and the EU are working together to oppose Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Chancellor Merkel has indicated that she will not support a lifting of the EU arms embargo against China, which the United States also opposes. A number of differences are likely to continue even under the Merkel government, such as on the treatment of terror suspect prisoners, extra-judicial "renditions," environmental policy, and the International Criminal Court. Chancellor Merkel's first official visit to Washington and her talks with President Bush on January 13, 2006, were designed to demonstrate that a new positive chapter had opened in bilateral relations, although differences were discussed candidly. The two leaders agreed on most points, including the urgency of addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions. This report will be updated.


A "grand coalition" government of Germany's two largest parties, the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union(1) (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) led by CDU candidate Angela Merkel took office on November 22, 2005, after the two parties worked out an agreement on a coalition governing program. The German federal election of September 18, 2005, had produced no clear winner or direction for the next government. Some see this government as short-lived and unlikely to succeed, while others believe that only such a coalition has the combined strength to implement potentially painful but needed economic and social benefits reforms, assuming that it can overcome partisan politics. Foreign policy is likely to play a secondary and less contentious role, given the press of domestic business and a general consensus on most international issues. The atmosphere of U.S.- German relations has already improved since the Merkel government took office, as reflected by the successful first official visit of Chancellor Merkel to Washington on January 13, 2006.

2005 Election

Lead-Up to Early Election

On May 22, 2005, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder surprised his country by announcing that he would seek early federal elections in September 2005, a year ahead of schedule. His decision followed the resounding defeat suffered by his Social Democrats (SPD) in the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, a traditional SPD stronghold.(2) This was the most recent in a string of state election losses that had given the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) opposition firm control of the German Bundesrat (upper house of parliament). The sluggish economy, persistently high unemployment, as well as concern about welfare and labor reforms, both enacted and planned, were widely seen as principal reasons for the SPD defeat.

Early elections are rare in Germany because the German Basic Law (Constitution) makes it very difficult for the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) to be dissolved. Only the President can dissolve parliament and only after a vote of no confidence in the government. German President Horst Kohler set new elections for September 18, 2005 after the Bundestag held a vote of no confidence in the government which the Chancellor himself initiated on July 1, 2005. Before the election was held, the decision was reviewed and approved by the German Constitutional Court.

Election Results

The election gave no party the necessary majority with its preferred coalition partner. Although the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) got the most votes by a slim margin, it had an unexpectedly weak showing compared to pre-election polls and in light of the general disgruntlement with the previous government. Analysts attributed the weak showing to the fact that voters were deeply skeptical of whether a CDU/CSU government could accomplish more than its predecessor and were also worried about some of the CDU reform ideas. According to official results, the CDU/CSU received 35.2 percent of the vote, barely beating out the Social Democrats (SPD) with 34.3 percent of the vote. This left neither party in a position to form a government with just its most likely coalition partner. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) actually did better than expected with 9.8 percent of the vote and ahead of the Greens who received 8.1 percent. The new Left Party, a union of east German former communists and a breakaway faction of the SPD, received 8.9 percent of the vote, enough to be seated as a faction in the Bundestag. The former communist party (PDS) did not achieve the 4 percent threshold to gain seats in the Bundestag. Voter turnout was 77.7 percent, slightly less than in the 2002 election.(3)

Table 1. Major Party vote percentages in the last three German Federal Elections

2002  2005 
CDU/CSU 35.1 38.5 35.2
SPD 40.9 38.5 34.3
FDP 6.2 7.4 9.8
Greens 6.7 8.6 8.1
New Left -- -- 8.9
PDS 5.1 4.2 --