Continuity or Politikwechsel? the First Federal Red-Green Coalition

Article excerpt


In October 1998 the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens (1) formed a coalition government, the first ever between these parties at the federal level. In more ways than one, this new coalition marked a watershed in Germany's post-1945 development. Since 1945, Germany had been a democracy in which political parties hold an especially privileged position. This "party-state" has operated almost exclusively through the three major "Bonn" parties, which for nearly a half-century had governed through shifting coalitions. The Greens arose as a social movement challenging this hegemony; yet, only fifteen years after they first entered the Bundestag, they forged a federal coalition with one of the established parties they had once attacked. For the first time since 1957, a coalition had been formed that involved not only a party other than the three "Bonn" parties but also one not linked to the Federal Republic's creation. It was, furthermore, the first coalition ever to have resulted unambiguously from the wishes of voters.

This article examines the first red-green federal coalition in the light of the rules and practices that, in the course of five decades, have come to define coalition politics in Germany's party-state. My analysis rests on three arguments. First, while recent coalition studies have stressed the importance of contextual influences (such as constitutional rules or the party system) for German and western European coalition politics, I argue that informal rules, mechanisms, and norms are no less critical. Whereas the former shape the coalition options available to the relevant parties, the latter determine how well they can work together in negotiating and maintaining a mutually satisfactory coalition relationship. In the Federal Republic, such informal rules, procedures, norms, and mechanisms now govern the preelection behavior of potential coalition partners, as well as coalition negotiations and subsequent coalition relations.

My second argument is that however novel their coalition was in some respect, in terms of adhering to informal rules, mechanisms, and norms, the SPD and Greens have largely followed precedents set by previous federal coalitions. The extent of this continuity is all the more surprising given frequent attacks--not least by the Greens--on such modes of decision making as opaque and elitist. This continuity exists, I contend, because in Germany's "hegemonic" coalitions both the stronger senior and the weaker junior party benefit from the coalition. At the same time, I conclude, criticisms of informal coalition rules and mechanisms are often exaggerated and reflect a conception of parliamentary democracy no longer practicable under modern conditions of government by multiple parties.

My third argument is that for a "new" and "unconventional" party--which is how the Greens saw themselves upon first entering the national political scene--agreeing to govern with one of the established parties presents distinctive dilemmas. To be considered as a viable partner, they must conform to the formal institutions and rules of politics they oppose. To have an impact, they must also accept informal modes of interaction that rely on secretive elite bargaining. Both requirements may weaken the Green's political identity and bases of support. Nonetheless, I contend, the party has proved surprisingly successful both in negotiating a viable coalition and in meeting their governmental responsibilities. This acceptance of the formal and informal rules of German coalition politics marks the completion of the Greens' transition from social movement to governing party. No less importantly, it demonstrates once again the resiliency and strength of Germany's democracy.

For the purposes of this article, I shall use the term "formal" to mean established by constitutional or statute law. As part two will show, coalition politics in Germany is governed by numerous formal rules set forth in the constitution or Basic Law. …