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By the German constitution, every member of parliament has to adhere to their conscience only. In reality, the parties on the parliament usually vote unanimously for some bill. The parties that are part of the coalition vote in support of the bill, the other parties against it.

To me, this does not make much sense. We have hundreds of members in the parliament in order to represent the nuances of society. If they only adhere to their party, then we could just have a couple of people from each party in the parliament and give them a weight factor according to the number of votes that their party has. This would require less people and the apparent result would be the same.

I realize that all those members do other things as well, they work in little work groups on fine grained topics and discuss these with the remaining party. Therefore the whole party might be persuaded to support this direction. With fewer people there, there would be less manpower to delve into these topics.

Today it was announced that the talks about coalition between CDU, CSU, FDP and Grüne have failed. Of course there were topics that were rather polarized, like refugees and coal power. In these talks the result might have been a coalition with an agreement like this:

Although the green party (Grüne) don't want to cap the number of refugees, they agree to some particular number. On the other hand, CDU/CSU agree to cut down coal power in order to reduce CO₂ emissions.

But why is there a need to talk about this beforehand? Why do we (or the politicians) want a static coalition? Instead, I would imagine it to go like this. The parties meet in the parliament and then they just vote on stuff, everyone on their own.

  • A few candidates for chancellor are suggested, Merkel, Schulz, …. Then all parties vote for their favorite candidate.
  • Then this chancellor picks ministers that he thinks will head into directions that are supported by society and therefore also by the majority of members in the parliament.
  • New laws are proposed and every member just votes for them. This requires the need of sufficient information for each voting politician, of course. Their party can provide some guidance, but ultimately they need to make up their own mind.

This would remove the need for those weird coalition talks. Also it would prevent those “deals” where all other parties support some crazy idea just because they need the votes from the small party for some idea. If there is a wide majority for the “foreigner toll”, it will be passed. Otherwise, it will not. If there are enough members voting to reduce coal emissions, it happens.

Why do we need coalitions which statically put large chunks of the political spectrum into powerless opposition for a full legislation period?

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    It's probably the same reason why parties evolved in the first place (party = group of deputies who agreed on a common agenda; coalition = group of parties who agreed on a common agenda (temporarily)).
    – Annatar
    Nov 20, 2017 at 9:52
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    Just two words: stability and operational readiness. Not every event waits until everyone has discussed it fully.
    – Trilarion
    Nov 20, 2017 at 21:39
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    What about issues that weren't part of the coalition agreement?
    – user253751
    Nov 20, 2017 at 22:30
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    Actually, sometimes some part of the opposition votes in favor of laws they like. Nov 20, 2017 at 22:51
  • 2
    If a government is likely to lose due to rebellions it usually just doesn't have the vote, which is why governments seem to always win votes Nov 20, 2017 at 23:29

6 Answers 6

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The idea is to actually reduce bartering and strange deals by making a coalition agreement.

Let's assume this isn't done and instead, everyone is free to vote on every decision. What would happen? A lot of horse trading, all the time. "If you vote for our coal permission law now, I will vote against capping refugee numbers."

This sort of weird deals would not stop, and why should it? Even if something would find a majority, votes can be traded and suddenly the majority thing has not enough votes anymore. By making the hard deals first and then (mostly) adhering to them during the legislation period removes the possibility of bartering after the coalition agreement has been settled.

(On a side note, you also want a parliament to have a certain size, for a simple reason: bribery. The more well-paid people are there, the more expensive bribery would be, and the more eyes are around to notice the attempt. Having only six people with weighted votes would make it very easy to bribe the ones with the most voting power.)

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    I'm not sure that high pay alone will prevent bribery. There will always be something that our politician can't attain with their own well paid resources. Someone else who has those resources or privileges can extend them to the politician in exchange for favorable votes later. This is exactly the problem experienced by US senators and congressmen. Running an election campaign is expensive so campaign contributions (bribes) buy influence.
    – Green
    Nov 20, 2017 at 22:53
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    In short, you get something closer to the USA where parties are considerably less disciplined than in parliamentary system. And that divide points to the cause. In the USA Presidents and Governors are executing the laws and so stable coalitions are not as important to maintaining stability of executive branch administration.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 21, 2017 at 5:57
  • Making deals in a designated “deal making phase” sounds better than having implicit deals all the time. Perhaps I am ignorant to the actual political work, but if there is only consensus on few topics, only those should be accepted by vote. Surely each representative wants to get the best for their voters, but if it cannot be reached through discussions, they should just let it go and try later on? Nov 21, 2017 at 8:50
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    @Green I agree. Being in a financially comfortable situation is not enough to prevent bribery. It helps mitigating it, but it will not prevent it. The fact that political opponents will actively look for successful bribery attempts to make them public because it helps their own career, or media looking for a big story, is also an important factor. But even this will not exclude the possibility of bribery.
    – Thern
    Nov 21, 2017 at 9:53
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    If this sole reason you name is true, then why do we barely see any vote bartering in non-coalition parliaments like the Swiss one?
    – Nobody
    Dec 24, 2021 at 19:30
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Nebr has written a good answer, which I would like to supplement with the two following concepts:

A stable coalition is important for international negotiations and treaties.
While it is technically true that the chancellor/ministers can be instructed for a given negotiation and a treaty usually has to be approved by the Bundestag, this is somewhat simpler if there is a stable, governing coalition. If nothing else, the process of approval would be quicker. For the same reason, I do not think that a minority government, "tolerated" by another party would be feasible. (That is: some chancellor from group A, bringing in ministers from group A, would be voted into office by groups A and B. B would not send ministers and sporadically cooperate with A on some legislation and abstain on other.) My humble opinion: compared to some European neighbors, that have had minority governments before, Germany is too big a factor in international politics to be stricken by the slow and less predictable processes for several years.

German parliament is large due to dual representation.
The Bundestag tries to have it both ways: a representative from every district (decided by plurality vote) and proportional representation such that small parties are relevant at all. This is difficult unless there are a lot of representatives.

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You don't need static coalitions.

In a parliamentary system, you can have a minority government. A majority government is usually assured of passing its laws through parliament; de jure no, but de facto yes. A minority government is not assured of this either way.

Such minority governments are quite common in the Nordic countries. For example, in 2017, Sweden had a centre-left minority government consisting of social democrats and greens. They could be toppled, but only if the centre-right joins forces with either the far-right or the far-left. Both are politically unlikely: the centre-right does not want to be seen as doing deals with the far-right (which in Sweden are considered politically toxic), and the far-left does not want to topple a centre-left government, for they know it's likely to be replaced by something worse. Combined with the details of the exact rules of Swedish politics (like how to pass a budget), this means the centre left government can remain in power.

One of those details: The Swedish national parliament uses negative parliamentarism, by which a proposal does not need a majority to pass. In negative parliamentarism, a proposal passes as long as there is no majority against. The current (2021) Andersson Cabinet was voted into power by parliament with 28.94% in favour, 49.57% against, and 21.49 abstained. Because less than 50% of parliament voted against, the government can remain in power.

A minority government would be possible but unprecedented in Germany, which does not have negative parliamentarism. A CDU-CSU minority government, such as proposed in this editorial by the leftist newspaper taz, would need changing majorities and would occasionally need to implement policy it doesn't want. This is not as new as it may seem: although German coalition governments have usually had majorities in the Bundestag (lower house), this has not always been the case for the Bundesrat (upper house). Therefore, deals between government and opposition to pass major legislation have occurred in the past. During the Euro crisis, many MPs of Merkels own CDU (and the CSU sister party) rebelled against the government, but with the aid of opposition Green MPs, bailout legislation still passed.

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A system with static coalitions is not a necessity for a parliamentary democracy. I'm not an expert on this, but what you're describing sounds essentially like a Concordance system or what's known as "Consociationalism":

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concordance_system

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consociationalism

This is the political system in Switzerland, for example.

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I'll add one more reason to Nebr's good answer: it creates a two level system, whereby the parties decide which position to support on a particular issue, then the final vote is just between the however many parties (and even then typically the coalition agrees, which ends the issue there).

If there are 1000 members, in 6 parties, where 3 of them hold 600 seats (225/200/175) and 3 of them hold 400 seats (150/150/100), and those first 3 are in a governing coalition, then the first three parties can work out at their individual level what position to take on something. The three party heads will each go back to their parties, work out what is important to their members, then come together and negotiate what position to take as a coalition. This significantly simplifies things, rather than having all 1000 people work things out at once: the smaller groups are always easier, especially when it's three small groups that mostly agree to start with.

Likely they work things out even more discretely; perhaps each state's representation inside each party, or even a smaller level, might work together to figure out what's best for that state/region. Any time you can simplify a larger number to a smaller number, it's easier overall to come to an agreement.

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    Bundesland (state) interests very rarely affect the voting behavior of individual parliament members in the Bundestag. Members almost always vote according to party lines. State representation is what the Bundesrat is for. (Exception: the CSU, which is the Bavarian partner of the CDU, often fights for Bavarian interests. But they are still far more likely to vote with the CDU than with Bavarians in other parties).
    – Philipp
    Nov 20, 2017 at 21:43
  • @Philipp The assumption here is that there is, before the actual vote, some intra-party discussion that decides how the party will vote as a cohesive unit. Whether that's explicit, or implicit - perhaps in who they choose as party head - it almost certainly happens to some degree. Were Angela Merkel to start proposing legislation to turn Germany into a Communist state, or into an Islamic state, or something else clearly contrary to the preference of the party as a unit, that would be obvious, right?
    – Joe
    Nov 20, 2017 at 22:25
  • That's what I'm talking about: in that intra-party discussion, there could possibly be some factionalizing (whether based on where people are from, or some other element) that simplifies the voting process further.
    – Joe
    Nov 20, 2017 at 22:26
  • I see how this makes the process simpler. But in your example that also means that 40 % of the representatives do not have any say in the matter. The only motivation for the 60 % to at least know what the other 40 % want is that they want to be elected again eventually. Lately it appears as the coalition parties stole the topics from the other parties. So they do reflect their wishes indirectly. — The vote on any sex marriage was a completely uninstructed vote, passed against the coalition. I wonder why this does not happen more often. Nov 21, 2017 at 8:47
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One of the most important votes in parliament is electing the Chancellor who then suggests government ministers to the President. (The President does the actual appointing.) The election process includes up to three distinct stages:

  1. The President suggests a candidate for the Bundestag to vote on.

    In practice, the President awaits coalition agreements and then suggests whoever the coalition parties agree on. In 2017, that was Angela Merkel; in 2021 that was Olaf Scholz.

    The Bundestag votes on the President's suggestion. The candidate must receive an absolute majority of votes (over 50 %). There is only one vote.

    (In practice, the procedure has always ended here and the suggested candidate was elected. The constitution does spell out how to continue.)

  2. If the suggested candidate is rejected, parliament is given a two-week period during which to nominate its own candidates. The standing orders require 25 % of MdBs in support for a candidate to stand. Again, an absolute majority is needed to be elected.

    If the process ends here (or has ended before reaching this point), the President must appoint the successful candidate as Chancellor. However, there is a step 3.

  3. If the two weeks have passed and nobody is elected, the Bundestag conducts one additional vote. In this vote, the candidate with a relative majority is elected. (A re-vote is performed in case of a tie.)

    Unlike the previous cases, the President may or may not appoint the candidate at their discretion. They may decide to accept a minority government or they may decided to dissolve parliament and call for a re-election.

A Chancellor remains in office until a new one is elected. Typically, this happens after a general election. However, the constitution also allows for a constructive vote of no confidence – meaning that by electing a different person with an absolute majority of members the Bundestag can topple a ruling Chancellor. As in phase 1 or 2 above, the President must appoint the new electee as Chancellor.

What does this mean for coalitions? Considering that a lot of power rests in the hands of the Chancellor (and their government), getting your candidate elected is rather important for the party that won the election. However, only once in German postwar history has a party held an outright majority. So to prevent the chancellor election from proceeding into stage 3 (where any opposition groups could band together and elect somebody else), they will attempt to secure an absolute majority before the first vote.

On the other hand, the helping parties have no a priori incentives to vote on the candidate of the election-winning party. There is no part of the consitution that would guarantee them any government ministers and as they too are necessarily a non-majority party they cannot be certain to get any legislation passed in their favour. Furthermore, they might ditch their support for winning party's candidate at any time, which in turn would be undesirable for the winning party, for obvious reasons.

All this is averted by negotiating a deal that all parties can agree on before beginning phase 1 of the Chancellor vote. This deal is the coalition agreement; it guarantees the smaller party(/ies) government ministers and areas of responsibility and hashes out policies that they agree to implement while in power. Typically, the agreed policies will be in part one party's pet projects, in part the other's (/others'), in part compromises that both can live with.

This type of agreement obviously only makes sense if it can be sustained throughout the election period. Why go through all the trouble just to have your cooperation partner ditch you a year later?

And all the above are the thought processes that lead to static coalition agreements being drawn up for governments in Germany.


This is not to say that minority governments are impossible. They have occured, both at state and at federal level. The reasons could be multifold: maybe a very small party whose votes are required to cross the absolute majority threshold doesn't feel comfortable joining a full-fledged coalition agreement but generally holds similar political opinions and can agree to a lower-level cooperation; maybe a former, larger coalition broke apart but there is no new majority that can be formed so the current government can continue as a minority government until a new one is elected. In general though, parties tend to avoid these situation in favour of more static stability.

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