This week saw the swearing in of the 18th Bundestag (German Parliament), after months of talks amongst the parties.
The results of the election on September 22nd left four parties in the corners of the ring, with Merkel’s Union coming just several seats short of an absolute majority. This is not a common occurrence here. Btw, calling her party “Union” is a little pedantic but should be done. The CDU, her party, has a sister party, the CSU, in Bavaria. Different parties and different heads of party but generally voting as a block.
The various arrangements have lead to a “Great Coalition” – a joining of the two centrist, middle-sweep parties: The SPD (Social Democrats) and CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats). You can guess which one is center-left and which one is center-right.
Before the leaders of the Social Democrats were willing to go into this slippery coalition, they drew up a contract with the Union (this happens) and then put it to a vote of their party members, presumably to cover their political butts.
The measure passed, ushering in a Great Coalition.
Monday saw the official signing of the Koalitionsvertrag, the Coalition Contract. Big table set up with lots of important people from each of the three parties – the two Unions and the Social Democrats. The signatories were the head honchos of each of the parties. For the CDU, this was Merkel, who has consolidated the power within the party rather thoroughly around herself. For the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel was the leader of the coalition talks in his role as the head of the SPD. Now in the Cabinet, he is Vice-Chancellor and now the custom-cut Minister for Business and Energy. Gabriel has emerged as the most prominent member of the SPD. He is also, as the name of his new position suggests, the person who will try to lead Germany towards its goals of energy reform, abandoning nuclear energy by 2022 and developing the green sector. The rest of the parties’ leadership signed on, too.
The third person sitting at the wheel was Horst Seehofer, head of Bavaria’s CSU, and the Ministerpräsident (Governer, really) of the state. Certainly on Monday he came off looking rather unpolished, as here, when he couldn’t find the correct page of the contract to show to the press, and Merkel had to help him.
With the contract of the parties signed, the parliament met on Tuesday. They had met a few times since the election to discuss special topics, but that was a bizarre constellation where the old ministers still had their seats – including those from the now ousted Liberal Party (FDP). Those sessions did not pass new laws. They were not, in some sense, full sessions of parliament.
Germany is a very democratic country. Tuesday’s vote, though, was not democracy’s strongest showing here. The President of the Bundestag, a position akin to Speaker of the House, proposed to vote on Merkel for the position of Chancellor, a yes or a no. At least it was a secret ballot election.
The results came back with 462 out of 631 voting for her. It is noteworthy that this represents 42 less votes than if everyone from the Union and SPD had voted for her. The other parties, who presumably did not vote for her at all are Die Linke (The Left) and Die Grüne (The Greens). This vote of more than 2/3 is likely to be the kind of votes we will see in the next four years.
While Germany only has one house, the Bundestag, this situation does not amount to a total mandate. Laws go through the Bundesrat as well, a federal council representing the states of Germany. The members of the Bundesrat represent the votes in state elections, which deviate considerably from the national vote – here, the Green party has considerably more power, and the Liberals (FDP) still hold seats.
This week also marked what would have been Willy Brandt’s 100th birthday. So after months of campaigning and bickering, Germans could rally around Brandt and remember a time when the country was more united (that was a joke). Brandt was the Mayor of West Berlin when the wall was built, the Chancellor who fell to his knees in Warsaw at the memorial to the ghetto and uprising, and whose policy of Ostpolitik helped lead to German reunification and reconciliation. While sponsored by Brandt’s own SPD and mostly attended by their own members, at least one person showed up who has definitively risen above party politics in his life, former President Richard von Weizsäcker – renowned for the speech in which he said that May 8th 1945, V-Day, was a day of liberation.