Towards institutional gridlock? The limitations of Germany's consensus democracy.

VerfasserSchweiger, Christian

1 Introduction: The unified Germany--a prisoner of the consensus democracy

This article examines the weaknesses of Germany's domestic polity on the basis of the domestic political developments following the 2005 general election. It argues that the formation of the second grand coalition government in Germany's post-war history has revealed the weaknesses of the internal mechanisms of Germany's multi-level consensus democracy.

This is predominantly the result of the failure to undertake a substantial reform of the German polity at the time of reunification in 1990. The unified Germany is consequently governed on the basis of a "semisovereign" political system with a dispersion of power amongst multiple levels and weak agenda-setting powers of the federal executive. The inherent tendency of the German political system to force the two main parties CDU/CSU and SPD to cooperate, even if they are not in a formal coalition on the federal level, is hence in danger of being reinforced. The "grand coalition state" (Schmidt 2008: 64) has now reached the point where minimum winning coalitions lead by either of the major parties are practically unable to initiate substantial policy change because they are almost constantly faced with a regional chamber, the Bundesrat, which is dominated by the opposition parties. This either forces them into a grand coalition government on the federal level or demands at least informal cooperation in the regional chamber in order to avoid complete policy gridlock in crucial areas under a small minimum-winning coalition of either of the two larger parties with one or more of the smaller parties.

Moreover, the experience with the second grand coalition led by chancellor Merkel between 2005 and 2009 showed that even substantial majorities in the Bundestag and the Bundesrat are not sufficient to guarantee substantial progress in major policy areas, as both parties are adamant to maintain their own electoral profile. The dissatisfaction of the electorate with the governing record of the two main parties was reflected in the result of the 2009 general election. The election confirmed a trend which benefits smaller parties, particularly the party of the left (Die Linke) at the expense of the catch-all status of the CDU/CSU and the SPD.

The resulting new diversity in the German party system has increased the unpredictability of legislative outcomes in the complex interaction between the federal government and the regional governments in the Bundesrat. While the unified Germany is confronted with a challenging set of the internal and external challenges, fundamental policy reform in crucial areas such as economic policy, employment, welfare reform and education has hence become even harder to achieve. The German political system consequently risks becoming trapped in a vicious circle in which the decline in electoral support for the larger parties produces ever more complex bargaining processes between a new diversity of party coalitions on the federal and the regional level and subsequently prevents the introduction of a clear policy agenda. This development contradicts Lijphart's thesis who argued that "consensus democracies do clearly outperform the majoritarian democracies with regard to the quality of democracy and democratic representation" (Lijphart 1999: 301). This article takes issue with Lijphart's preference for the consensus model of democracy as the superior model in terms of democratic quality. The German case clearly illustrates that the essential characteristics of a consensus democracy, the decentralization of executive power in a federal system and a proportional electoral system, can lead to profound shortcomings in terms of the problem-solving capacity of the political system.

2 Institutional misfit: The legacy of the Bonn republic

In contrast to the current situation, the West German Federal Republic with its political centre in Bonn used to be a role model for effective consensual governance. The Bonn republic's reputation as a stable consensus democracy was based on the determination in the German basic law (Grundgesetz) that power has to be shared between a multiplicity of actors on the federal, regional and local level. The basic law sets out the principle of parliamentary sovereignty on the basis that the electorate as the principal sovereign determines the composition of parliament (Article 20 paragraph 2 GG). The emphasis on the devolution of power under the federal principle (Article 20, paragraph 1 GG) gives the Lander state character on the condition that their organization is in line with the basic principles of the Grundgesetz (Article 28 paragraph 3 GG). It therefore clearly distinguishes them from the purely regional administrative districts in other countries, such as the "shire districts" in the United Kingdom and the "provinces" in France (Maunz and Zippelius 1998: 62). This illustrates the inherent principle of "semisovereignty" which Peter Katzenstein famously assigned to the West German state in 1987. Katzenstein emphasized that the "semisovereign" character of the German state structure manifested itself in the fact that all of the central state actors and institutions (federal government, parliament, Bundesrat, president, constitutional court) are very strongly interdependent and limit each other's sovereign powers. This even applies to the federal parliament, the Bundestag, which constitutionally is considered to be the core sovereign decision-maker but in practice is noticeably constrained by the need to compromise with the Bundesrat, the body that represents the interests of the Lander governments (Katzenstein, 1987).

The focus on "semisovereignty" and decentralization, with a maximum of checks and balances on all levels emerged as a result of the experience with the lack of efficient constraints on the abuse of executive power, which had occurred during the Weimar Republic and had paved the way for the Nazi dictatorship. The obvious response to this was the establishment of a pluralistic polity which secures the recognition of a diverse range of interests and where policies generally can be reversed relatively easily, provided that they do not affect the constitutional setting. The emerging consensus democracy seemed to be the perfect setting for a country which had to rebuild its domestic economy from post-war ruins and was at the same time adamant to prove to the world that it had learnt its lessons on the abuse of power under the National Socialists. The consensus democracy provided the political stability that was essential for the evolvement of the West German Rhineland economy as the economic powerhouse of Europe. Peaceful industrial relations, based on autonomous collective bargaining between employers and trade unions, combined with relative political continuity offered a stable framework in which West German industry could prosper and focus on the development of high quality manufacturing products.

West Germany hence became the leading exporter in Europe and its strong economic performance stood in stark contrast to many other European countries, such as Britain and France, where strikes and radical economic policy changes had become a regular occurrence. The emphasis on "high continuity and smooth incremental change, in industry as well as in politics" (Kitschelt and Streek 2004: 3) had therefore clearly paid off. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, West Germany was able to acquire the status of the economic role model of Europe. In spite of its incremental tendency to produce intense policy debate, slow processes of decision-making and a high number of veto points on all levels, the political system of the Federal Republic was widely considered to ensure a high level of democratic participation and transparency. If West Germans ever dared to mention the notion of national pride in the post-war context, they would usually refer to the political and economic achievements of their political system. The political elites had repeatedly tried to encourage the notion of a Verfassungspatriotismus, which referred to a sense of national pride with regard to the principles of the German basic law. Although this sentiment never really took hold amongst the West German public (and seemed to be even less acceptable to the "new" citizens in the Eastern part of the unified Germany after 1990), a certain sense of pride of the political stability and the economic success the basic law had provided to a country that had emerged from the ruins of the Second World War, was clearly noticeable in the Bonn republic. This was most openly expressed by President Richard von Weizsacker in 1985, who in an otherwise somber speech to the Bundestag on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of WW2 highlighted the political success of West Germany's post-war political setting:

The Federal Republic of Germany has become a globally respected country. It belongs to the group of the most highly developed countries in the world (...) We have been living in peace and liberty for 40 years (...) The civil liberties of citizens have never before been better protected than today. A dense social security net, which does not need to fear comparison with other societies, secures people's basic standard of living (Von Weizsacker 1985). In spite of a generally positive feeling about the post-war political and economic development amongst West Germans, by the early 1980s the first crisis symptoms had started to emerge. The decision of the FDP to withdraw its support for the coalition with the SPD under chancellor Helmut Schmidt and to subsequently elect CDU leader Helmut Kohl as chancellor in October 1982 emerged from an increasing feeling of crisis in the West German political system and economy (Steingart 2004: 54). Rising unemployment and a growing public deficit led to a situation in which the political outcomes of the post-war West German consensus democracy had...

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