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Single Article: Towards Institutional Gridlock? The Limitations of Germany’s Consensus Democracy

GPS, Vol. 6 No. 1, (2010)

The September 2005 general election forced Germany‟s two largest political parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, to form the second grand coalition government in the country's post-war history. The election result was widely regarded as an expression of the view amongst the electorate that neither of the two main political camps could offer adequate solutions to the urgent political, social and economic challenges which the larger Germany has been facing since reunification in 1990.
This article argues that the failure of the grand coalition to implement substantial changes of the policy and institutional status quo reveals the intrinsic structural weaknesses of Germany‟s “semisovereign” political system, which favors continuity over change. The democratic process in the unified Germany continues to operate on the basis of the “semisovereign” polity of the West German Federal Republic, which is characterized by a culture of consensual decision-making and a complex policy-making process which provides a high level of institutionalized veto points on multiple levels. The ability of minimum winning federal government coalitions to implement a decisive policy-agenda and to achieve rapid policy change in response to a new complexity of internal and external challenges is therefore severely restricted by an institutional culture in which regional interests and short-term electoral prospects dominate.
This institutional misfit has lead to the establishment of an informal grand coalition state, where policy gridlock can usually only be avoided if the two larger parties achieve consensus halfway between their own policy positions. The limited level of fundamental policy change under the 2005-09 formal grand coalition and the resulting electoral dissatisfaction with its problem-solving capacity has increased the support for the smaller parties at the 2009 federal election. The resulting further fragmentation of the party system, which could in the future restrict coalition options to the alternative between a grand coalition and the formation of smaller coalitions of three or more parties, makes it even more unlikely that decisive policy change and institutional reform can be achieved in the current setting of the German consensus democracy.

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