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Intersections and percentages: why the FDP did benefit of exiting the Jamaica coalition talks

Newspapers suggest that the FDP is the main victim of its own decision to quit the Jamaica talks. This is a false narrative.

Lately, politics in Germany seemed to be rather business as usual. Sure, we only have an acting government, but it’s not that this has had a big negative impact on actual decision making or, equally important, the economy. I’m not surprised about it. The Netherlands went on for months with only an acting government, and Belgium once took almost two years (half of the legislative period) – and then it took them five months again the next time.

These are the moments that we realize: more and continuous political intervention is not necessarily driving economic and social well-being. But also: Minority governments can get their job done just fine. Think about it: In this very moment, the Germans have an acting government consisting of the CDU. It is tolerated by the SPD. Weirdly, the SPD even has some ministerial positions, even though it has declared that it will spend this legislative period in opposition to the CDU. And it works.

Quite naturally. In this very moment, parliamentary debate is disconnected from governmental mandate. We should keep that in mind. I’ll get back to that in a moment. First, however, I’d like to talk about the fate of the FDP.

How the FDP saved us from the AfD

The immediate reaction in most newspapers was: the FDP is to be blamed for the failing Jamaica talks. It seems like it was a prepared coup, and even if not: It’s irresponsible behavior in the face of a right-wing/racist AfD which would benefit from snap elections. Well, we don’t need to have snap elections. (And it’s not that it’s going to change anything. Based on any poll – for instance this one – that I’ve seen since, the governmental options might very likely be the same: grand coalition between CDU/CSU and SPD, Jamaica, and a minority government.) The parliament has a mandate to represent a pluralistic electorate. Other governments could form. But even if we were to hold elections again: it’s not the AfD that is really going to benefit of it.

It’s the FDP. That our leading newspapers do not recognize is the outcome of a heavy anti-FDP bias, a lack of analysis of certain social media feeds, and a lack of understanding of math. Here is an example, covering a poll that was run after the end of the negotiations – the ARD Deutschlandtrend:

Respondents give responsibility to the FDP

According to 32% of the respondents, the FDP is primarily to blame for the failed negotiations. 18% think that the CSU carries the primary responsibility. 15% ascribe this responsibility to the Green party, 9% to the CDU.

No, respondents do not give responsibility to the FDP. This is a false narrative that isolates the largest percentage in the poll. (It’s not even the largest percentage in every poll.) Truth is: Almost 70% of respondents do not primarily blame the FDP. In a more negative assessment, it’s still basically 50% of respondents that do understand the FDP. In the Deutschlandtrend, 30% explicity do appreciate the failed negotiations. Furthermore, we need to consider intersections of groups.

Who actually blames the FDP? And how many should blame the FDP?

Remember that the FDP got about 10% of the vote. It’s natural to expect that FDP voters will be most sympathetic with the FDP, even when something goes wrong. That’s usually the case with any party. Followers are more likely to believe the narrative of their party leaders. They might still be unhappy about the failed coalition, but they are not likely to be found among those that blame the FDP.

However, political opponents are more likely to blame the FDP. Or other political opponents. And now have a look at the results again: 90% of the electorate did not elect the FDP. (For simplicity, I’m assuming that non-voters would have voted similar to actual voters – which is likely false, but only weakens my point.) Still, only 30% primarily blame the FDP. 40-60% of the electorate observe that the Jamaica coalition failed – and blame other parties for it. And, remember, something like 30% explicitly appreciate the decision of the FDP. This is a big group of people that the FDP can address with their very simple message.

Lieber nicht regieren als schlecht regieren – Better to not govern at all but to govern bad.

For something like 30% of the electorate, the FDP took a responsible decision. They are at least potential targets to convert them into voters. And I think this potential is largest among voters of the AfD.

In fact, AfD voters are the only group of respondents that was primarily happy about a failed Jamaica coalition. Their infamous leader, Alexander Gauland, called the Green party the ideological main enemy of the AfD. I can confirm that. I have a number of social contacts that vote for or at least sympathize with the AfD. Some of them have xenophobic positions (towards some groups of foreigners, i.e. Muslims), some of them don’t. It’s a principle of mine to talk with them and listen to them, and sometimes to read their social media posts to understand them better from within their context. Their criticism of existing politics almost always goes back to the Green party. Even when they blame the CDU, eventually they blame it for being too much like the Green party. They sympathize with the AfD because they want to avoid yet another government that is based on ideas of the Green party.

Note: this is not my position. I can’t identify with the left wing of the Green party either, but I’m very happy that it exists, enriches the debate, and has had an influence towards a generally more progressive leadership in Germany. But that doesn’t matter here. It’s just a disclaimer.

Now, after the failed negotiations, for the first time in years I find them speaking out positive about the FDP. (Usually, they blame that party to only be interested in making politics for the rich, the same narrative that the party is up against anyways.) All of a sudden, all those who voted for the AfD just out of protest, but do still have big stomach ache when it comes to the racism in that party, now have another alternative. On the surface, the AfD celebrates the end of Jamaica. Yet they admit that the FDP is now their main contender for accumulating votes.

How a minority government will be the nail in the AfD coffin

It was a courageous decision to take, given how certain everybody was about Jamaica, and how the main narrative was that we need a coalition of those who want in order to prevent the AfD from benefiting from a country without leadership. From the little evidence we have: Jamaica would have been a coalition with lots of infighting. It would not have been a coalition that had the potential to increase the trust of the electorate that politicians do politics for a political goal, not just for their personal membership in the government. While I sympathized with Jamaica, I now realize that it would have done nothing but strengthen the AfD, as they could have continued comfortably with their narrative – “us against them”. Jamaica – a government formed by four out of seven parties in the parliament – was just another grand coalition.

German newspaper “Die ZEIT” wrote in 2013 a compelling article that proposed a minority government. Yesterday, the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” published a guest article by an FDP member who proposes it again for 2017. And this morning, voices in the SPD are getting louder that a minority government of CDU/CSU could be tolerated by the SPD.

Personally, I don’t care if it’s tolerated. That anyways should only mean that the government would be elected (in the German system, toleration is not strictly necessary for that) and would survive a confidence vote. I’m less favorable about a minority government tolerated by the Liberals or the Green party – since those have been foes in the Jamaica negotiations, any toleration by one of the two is a partisan decision. I can’t see how that would lead to more willingness to collaborate with the other one of the two.

Things are different if the CDU/CSU dares to take on that task all by itself. I’m confident that it would work because the main players in such a situation would still be the CDU/CSU and the SPD. After eight years of grand coalition, however, they are not as polarized as the main players in most other countries usually are. While there will be more debate, there will also still be political respect that enables communication across the isle.

So, let’s have a minority government. Let them have debates. I’m looking forward to it. All of a sudden, it will happen that the voice of the AfD is just one among many. It’s a great chance to break this vicious cycle of over-reporting on them. Much of their success rests on the attention they get; it rests on the recognition they receive as opponents of the incumbents. In a minority government, there are effectively no incumbents anymore.

New elections in 2021?

However, while I am against snap elections, I’m less certain that a minority government would or should last the entire legislative period. To some extent, that depends on the success. More importantly, the distribution of support for either party in the electorate will change, very likely, based on their individual performance and a huge number of exogenous events that we don’t know anything about yet. There might be a legitimate point at which to call for new elections, i.e. when polls over a longer time period suggest that a simple coalition government (read: two fractions only) could form.

There will be. And at that point, I also would not see it as a silly rejection of how realistically political opinions are distributed at this moment.

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