Elections can be a tricky endeavor, especially in a working multi-party system, meaning there are seldom absolute majorities. This requires the building of a governing coalition of multiple parties that have to agree and compromise on a coalition agreement, while the rest build the opposition. This begs an important question. Do you honor the political responsibility, put on you by the nation voting for this constellation, even if it means compromising to form a government? Or do you honor only your own voter base, by staying true to yourself and your principles, even if that means the failure of the elections? After the horrible German Federal Election 2017, the Social Democrats (SPD) now has to ask themselves the exact same question.
This situation is not unique to Germany, compromises and the question of honoring political responsibility over principles, or the other way around, are part of every party in every system that is not bipartisan. The situation in Germany is unique in its own right though, as the nation has never been without a government this long after an election. Usually, the government is formed by one or both of the biggest parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Conservatives (CDU).
The Power of Political Principles
Over the past three terms, the CDU has been raking in the most votes, thus providing the Chancellor Angela Merkel. Their coalition partner in two of those terms has been the SPD, which has also been on a continuous decline since their first joint term under Merkel in 2005.
Especially during the Last term, the SPD has been under fire for neglecting their voter base and principles by catering too much to the conservatives while being part of the governing coalition. That’s the main reason they decided to not form a coalition with the CDU this time around, announcing their intention to be part of the opposition on the very night of the results. They made the deliberate decision to reorientate back to their base, by honoring their principles and neglecting political responsibility. While one may argue about that, decisiveness is a trait and a principle to be respected as well up to a certain degree.
The decision hurt the CDU the most, as they needed to build a working coalition to keep their party in power and Merkel as Chancellor. Their only shot at a working coalition would’ve been a so-called Jamaica coalition with the Liberals (FDP) and the Green Party. The FDP too had bad memories of working with the CDU for one term under Merkel, a term that proved to be devastating for their political base and causing them to forfeit the coalition talks abruptly when they lost all hope of preserving their principles while honoring the political responsibility towards their nation. They too chose their principles over political responsibility in the end.
And that could’ve been it. It could’ve prompted a historic decision, as the CDU ran out of possibilities. All that was left was a shot at a minority government, which would’ve been less than ideal, or to schedule re-elections.
Just how Important is Political Responsibility?
It’s a tricky situation for parties. There is an inherent political responsibility once the votes have been cast and the nation decided what constellation they think represents them best. Denying that can be seen as idealistic or determined, holding your principles high and fight for them, but that’s not how politics work. However, the reasoning behind the decisions of these two parties is understandable. Both FDP and SPD have been burnt by the CDU before and paid a high political price for their volition to embrace the political responsibility and trust put into them. Their own base punished them harshly with lower voter turnout in the following elections.
Fast forward to 2018, there’s still no government, nor have re-elections been scheduled. Why? Because the SPD reconsidered joining the government, putting their party in a peculiar place and in total jeopardy. It’s not surprising that many members of the party are less than pleased about the 180 their party leaders, especially former Chancellor candidate Martin Schulz, have pulled on them. His statement right after the election was:
“I won’t enter a government under Angela Merkel.”
After the coalition talks with the FDP failed, he added:
“We think re-elections are the way to go.”
And yet the reality, right now, is that the SPD has agreed on a coalition agreement with the CDU, splitting their party in sentiments and costing Martin Schulz his political career within the party. Not only did he start talks with CDU against the principles he set himself, he actually did one better by planning to become foreign minister, potentially forcing a party colleague out of the position. His party colleagues eventually urged Martin Schulz to step down from the party leadership and his ministry ambitions, which he eventually felt obliged to.
A Surreal Position
It’s a hot mess for the party, especially since the coalition agreement heavily favors the SPD, signaling that they actually managed to pull off the holy grail. They have managed to combine their principles with their political responsibility, yet they also managed to confuse and anger their party base, and rightfully so, by breaking their promises on multiple occasions. They have technically done everything right while doing a lot of things wrong at the same time.
The SPD party will soon vote on whether to accept the coalition agreement set forth by their leaders, and to commit to a coalition that may finally work in their favor, or to give a potential re-election a shot.
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