Ideology aside, George W. Bush would not have been elected Chancellor of Germany. Neither would Barack Obama. Neither would have had enough political experience to be tapped as the leader of his party, and that’s how the Chancellor is chosen. The difference is not simply structural. It reflects our different political expectations. (More)

Scattered Reflections, Part II – On There, From Here

This week Morning Feature will offer some scattered reflections on the past month. Yesterday I shared some Fritzflüstern (Fred Whispering) experiences on how Germans see the U.S. Today I’ll share some thoughts on European politics. Tomorrow I’ll try to tie it all together. Saturday is Christmas, so we’ll take a break from politics to review a 1st century blog from Judea recently unearthed by our Department of Pseudoarcheology.

As I wrote yesterday, most Germans don’t expect their government to solve difficult problems quickly. That may be partly a longer view of history. In Germany you are never more than a few kilometers from some centuries-old historical site. In Heidelberg you can eat in a restaurant – Zum Weissen Schwanen – that has on one wall the names of every brew master who has worked there since the restaurant opened … in 1398. (No, that is not a typo.) Being so steeped in history puts today in a different perspective.

But the structure of the German government also hedges against rapid innovation. Given their experience when they first sought national leadership, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama could have been elected Chancellor of Germany.

The road to the Chancellor.

Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005. While some in the American media thought her a long shot and wondered if Germans would vote for a woman, such analyses reflected a basic misunderstanding of how the Chancellor is chosen. Dr. Merkel – she holds a Ph.D in quantum chemistry – had been active in the Democracy Awakening movement that led to the end of communism in East Germany. Upon Reunification in 1990, she was elected to the Bundestag from her home district in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In 2000 the members of the Christian Democratic Union elected her their party chair. In 2002 the CDU and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, elected her to chair their coalition in the Bundestag. In U.S. terminology, she became the Minority Leader.

In 2005 her name was only on the ballot in her home district, but Germans cast two votes: one for a local Bundestag candidate, and another for party preference. In 2005, the CDU/CSU won the most party preference votes, with 35%. In Germany’s system, each party’s seats in the Bundestag reflect its percentage of the party preference vote. Local candidates who win their districts are automatically seated, and any remaining seats needed to fill out a party’s faction are chosen from a ranked list voted on by party members.

The CDU’s 35% party preference vote worked out to 248 seats in the Bundestag, the largest party faction but not a majority. While the CDU usually form a coalition with the libertarian Free Democratic Party, the FDP won only 10% of the vote … not enough for a combined majority. So the center-right CDU was forced to forge the Grand Coalition with their principal opponent, the center-left Social Democrat Party, who had won 34% of the vote.

That uneasy alliance and her post as leader of the CDU – not the direct choice of German voters – elevated Dr. Merkel to the post of Chancellor.

Note: In the 2009 elections, the CDU and FDP gained enough seats to combine for a majority in the Bundestag, and Dr. Merkel remained Chancellor as head of the CDU/FDP coalition. The Grand Coalition of the CDU and SDP was dissolved.

Structures and expectations:

The details of German electoral politics are not merely structural. They also shape the people’s expectations of government. German voters determine how many seats each party has in the Bundestag, but each party’s leader is elected by party members. Thus, to become Chancellor, you must belong to a party that wins enough seats to form and lead a coalition … and you must have earned the respect of your party’s members over your years of elected service. It is impossible for an “outsider” like George W. Bush – or Barack Obama – to become the Chancellor of Germany.

That structure has strengths. Because the Chancellor will always be a political veteran, German voters know they won’t get a neophyte ideologue who is full of grand ideas but has no idea how to make government work. “Career politician” is a compliment, not an epithet. And the parties’ internal elections for leadership posts and rankings enforce party discipline. Members who break ranks risk losing party standing and any hope of higher office. Experienced leaders and greater party discipline mean a Chancellor can almost always get his/her legislative agenda enacted.

But the structure has weaknesses as well. Because new voices must work their way up their party ranks, German politics tends toward the status quo. The bold new visions Americans long for in political leaders get muted by experience. Germans don’t hope for big change before an election, and don’t expect big change after an election. That works well for long-term adaptations to chronic issues. It can be a problem if an acute issue requires a major paradigm shift.

Germans’ greater patience with their government is not only a function of a greater appreciation of history. It reflects their understanding of how their leaders are chosen. They know they won’t get Someone New and Something Completely Different, so they don’t hope for it and aren’t disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

We Americans have a different enough political structure that we often don’t realize how much ours also tends toward the status quo. But we can elect “outsiders” whose inexperience – or willful ignorance – leads them into serious mistakes. Our structure allows both higher expectations … and deeper disappointments.


Happy Thursday!