German elections are scheduled to take place on September 27, and the country’s five major political parties are busy campaigning for parliament. Although polling data suggests that Angela Merkel should handily win re-election, Germany’s parliamentary system will certainly force Merkel’s ruling Christian Democrats into a coalition with at least one other party. An interesting article by Bertrand Benoit in Monday’s Financial Times suggests that the increase in the number of parties represented in the Bundestag, the national parliament, from three to five makes it difficult for traditional allies (the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Free Democrats on one side, and the Social Democrats (SDP) and Greens on the other) to effectively govern. Instead, what we are likely to see is a broader coalition incorporating either the two historical ideological rivals, the center-left SDP and the center-right CDU into a Grand Coalition—such as the one that has ruled Germany for the past four years—or a coalition involving three or more parties. Such an arrangement, Benoit believes, makes it impossible for parties to deliver on the promises made during the campaign and therefore runs the risk of leading to a greater sense of frustration and apathy among voters.
Benoit may be correct insofar as coalitions do indeed tend parties to moderate their platforms. However, this tendency for moderation is a strength of Germany’s parliamentary system. Parliamentary systems based on proportional representation (or in Germany’s case, a mixed proportional representation system) permit a broad range of parties to compete for representation. Germany’s mixed system imposes limits so that radical parties are unlikely to compete effectively, requiring, for example, that parties receive at least five percent of the national vote to receive any representation in the Bundestag. Once in parliament, the parties are forced to balance their desire to secure a seat at the table by moderate their positions against their desire to maintain their “ideological purity” by refusing to compromise. In such a system, voters can cast ballots for parties which represent their views on the most important issues, reducing rather than increasing voter apathy. At the same time, radical parties are generally excluded from positions of authority.