Five reasons why the German election matters for New Zealand

This post was originally published at Liberation.

In this post I provide some comparative insights into the lessons of the recent German election for New Zealand politics. The lessons are the following: 1. The electoral system is the same, 2. The German election shows the danger of a 5% threshold, 3. Angela Merkel is John Key, 4. A coalition is possible that does not include the biggest party, 5. Credibility matters.

1. The electoral system is the same

Germany was the model for the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system that New Zealand adopted in 1996. While it will always be easier culturally and linguistically to look for lessons from countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, New Zealand’s closest cousin in terms of voting system is Germany. Having had MMP since 1949, Germany has tried out forms of coalition government that New Zealand has not, such as the Grand Coalition that ran the country from 2005-09, and could see a Conservative-Green coalition following the 2013 election. That makes it worth keeping an eye on.

2. The German election shows the danger of a 5% threshold

Two parties, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), a party which had been represented continuously in the Bundestag since 1949, and the newly-founded Alternative for Germany (AfD, in its German initials) posted results just shy of 5%, at 4.8% and 4.7% respectively. Because of the 5% threshold, both of these parties will not be represented in the new parliament. Instead, their seats will be divvied up amongst the remaining parties.

Combined with wasted votes for other parties, there was a wasted vote of 15.8% – a staggeringly high figure which is almost twice the support of the Green Party, which achieved 8.4% support. By comparison, the wasted vote in the 2011 NZ General Election was 3.37%.

Although I supported the 5% threshold in my submission to the New Zealand MMP review in 2012 (which includes further comparisons between the two countries’ electoral systems) the sheer unfairness and disproportionality of the German results are leading me to reconsider my position.

Interestingly, there has been little criticism of the threshold in Germany itself, even from the parties affected. This is probably mainly to due to the longevity of the rule in Germany – it has been in place since 1953 – and the original reason for the 5% threshold: the fracturing of parties in the pre-WWII “Weimar Republic”.

3. Angela Merkel is John Key

They have a different gender, weren’t born in the same year (Merkel 1954, Key in 1961), grew up experiencing different sides of the Cold War and live on opposite sides of the world.

But yet, Angela Merkel finds herself in a remarkably similar position to John Key – more popular than her own party, highly pragmatic and willing to adopt left-wing positions to neutralise the opposition. In New Zealand, John Key signed up to Working for Families and interest-free student loans; in Germany, Merkel did a U-turn on keeping nuclear power plants and agreed to a minimum wage in all but name.

She has now also achieved a remarkably similar election result to John Key in 2011 – a consolidation of the right-wing vote, to the detriment of her coalition partners.

A look at the front pages of the biggest selling German paper, tabloid Bild, and the Herald on Sunday in New Zealand from the day after the respective elections in 2011 and 2013 shows how Merkel and Key are seen to be unqualified winners. Bild called the election “Merkel’s greatest triumph”.

In reality, the truth is much more nuanced – Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc have lost their right-wing majority, which let them govern with the FDP from 2009-13, and will have to deal with either the Greens or the Social Democrats. This means fewer CDU/CSU ministers and fewer conservative laws being passed.

Of course, trying to save coalition partners carries its own risks, as John Key found out in 2011 – the “teapot tapes” saga helped Act little and brought New Zealand First back into Parliament. But the lesson for National from the German election is that it is better to do well, and keep coalition partners alive, than to do extra well and suffocate them.

The irony is that had the CDU/CSU gained even just a fraction less support – say 40% rather than 41.5% – the FDP would have re-entered the Bundestag and a renewed conservative-liberal coalition would have been possible, with a much stronger Merkel hue given the reduced strength of the FDP (which gained 15% in 2009).

Interestingly, United Future leader Peter Dunne picked up on this point with a lengthy press release comparing the German situation to his own:

“National’s nightmare scenario is ending up after the next election without any partners – but instead of just worrying about that and hoping ‘something will turn up’ it needs to be working actively with its partners now to make sure that does not happen.”

4. A coalition is possible that does not include the biggest party

Also in Peter Dunne’s press release was this statement:

“John Key could well end up in a similar position to Ms Merkel now – leading the largest party in Parliament by far, but without a majority, and facing the possibility of being marooned by a motley coalition on the left”. 

A similar view was put forward by a New Zealand Herald editorial on Tuesday:

“On paper, Germany’s centre left parties could form a government but since Mrs Merkel’s party won 41.5 per cent and her nearest rival, the Social Democratic Party, 25.7 per cent, there seems to be no question that her party remains the rightful Government. The only issue to be resolved in the next few days is whether it forms its next coalition with the SDP or the Greens, who appear to be open to the idea.”

While the Herald appears to be arguing that a left-wing coalition would not be acceptable because it would not include the highest-polling party, this is not really the case. In fact, the reason is that the Social Democrats do not get on with the Left Party, partly because it has its origins in the former East Germany, but mainly because the party has been responsible for eating away at the SPD vote since a highly public split in 1999. The SPD, by ignoring the Left Party and summarily ruling it out as a potential coalition partner, has been hoping that its rival would be starved of oxygen and die off. It shows no sign of doing so.

Despite the long-standing animosity, hostility between the two left-wing parties is weakening thanks to changes in leadership in both parties, and an alliance between the SPD, Greens and Left is thinkable in the future, although not immediately. One idea that has been circulated is that the SPD will enter a Grand Coalition now, so as not to break its word, but later split to form a “red red green” coalition at some point during the next four years. Even the threat of a split could be useful to blackmail Merkel’s CDU/CSU into giving greater concessions.

Moreover, Germany has had coalitions in the past which have not had the involvement of the party with the largest number of votes, both at state and federal level. The Social Democrats governed for a decade from 1972-1982 with the FDP, despite the CDU/CSU being the largest party (albeit by a very small margin). At state level, a stark recent example is the 2011 election in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg – there, the Greens and the SPD formed a government, despite the CDU being the single biggest party in parliament by a long way (39%, versus the Greens and SPD’s 24% and 23% respective support levels).

In New Zealand, National could find itself the strongest party but outnumbered by parties on the left. The sum is more important than the parts.

5. Credibility matters

The SPD posted a disappointing result of 25.7%, only marginally up on their record-low result of 23% in 2009. Much of the blame has been laid at the door of the SPD’s candidate, Peer Steinbrück. While Steinbrück has a quick wit which served him well in the sole TV debate against Merkel, he was also prone to making gaffes which, beyond their embarrassment function, also showed up his origins on the right of the SPD.

For example, at the end of 2012, Steinbrück said that he would not drink a 5 Euro bottle of wine, and said that the chancellor’s salary was not high enough. Steinbrück also became embroiled in controversy regarding large payments he had received from banks for after-dinner speeches that he had given prior to his selection as the SPD’s candidate for chancellor.

None of this gelled well with left-wing voters when Steinbrück went around during the election campaign demanding a universal minimum wage (Germany currently has minimum wages only in certain sectors and in union-negotiated awards), something that Steinbrück had rejected just a few years earlier.

In that respect, Steinbrück  reminded me very much of Phil Goff, a kind of left-wing chameleon who was trying to convince voters that he had changed. Goff faced much the same problem in 2011, when he campaigned vociferously for a higher minimum wage and against state-asset sales, while sharing responsibility for the deterioration in conditions under the Fourth Labour Government of the 1980s.

Steinbrück or Goff may well have genuinely changed their positions – both of them had seen the effects that their earlier economic restructuring had had on society – but for voters, it was difficult to reconcile the two images. For Steinbrück, that meant his role close to Merkel as Finance Minister in the Grand Coalition of 2005-9.

While Goff and now Steinbrück are history as far as candidates to lead their respective countries, David Cunliffe is not. Some on the left are not convinced by Cunliffe’s left-oriented leadership campaign and point out that he supported some traditional right-wing ideas such as public private partnerships (PPP) while in government from 1999-2008.

Take this recent post from left-wing commentator Steve Cowan, for example:

After all the vaguely left wing rhetoric of his leadership campaign, David Cunliffe has now reverted to type. If anyone really thought David Cunliffe was going to reject neoliberal politics for a new progressive alternative, that illusion should of been shattered by the interview with him and David Parker on Q+A  last Sunday.  

Or this even more damning assessment from John Moore in May 2012:

Cunliffe is no radical socialist and the genuineness of his born-again leftism should be questioned. For example it was only a few years ago that Cunliffe was seen as pushing Labour to the right when he strongly argued for private-public partnerships for infrastructure works and was even labelled as the ‘first health minister to favour private health insurance’ by political commentator David Fisher. At this time Cunliffe was seen as very much a centrist who, behind the scenes, was a ‘prime driver in Labour’s economic policy’, pushing a pro-business line. At the time he argued that, ‘only in partnership with the business and community sectors can Government truly be effective’. Words that could of easily come from the mouths of John Key or David Shearer. In the Listener he was summed up very nicely with this one sentence: ‘Cunliffe is the new wave of “Third Way” Labour politicians: well-educated, wealthy and perhaps more comfortable among big business than in a working men’s club’.

Like Steinbrück and Goff, Cunliffe comes with experience. But the counterweight to experience is baggage, and Steinbrück showed that sometimes it can be too heavy to shake off. Labour will be hoping that voters believe Cunliffe in what he says and do not shrug their shoulders as they did at Goff in 2011.

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