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The Impact of a Grand Coalition on Political Events (November 22, 2005)

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Therefore, compromise-oriented talks should not be conducted in the spotlight, and the audience should not be made up of highly motivated core supporters. When representatives of greatly divergent parties are negotiating, then the doors should be closed tightly, all spectators should be banned, and one’s own circle should be kept as small as possible. Non-transparency promotes reasonableness, tempers the shrill rhetoric of conflict, and demobilizes the political tribunals.

Of course, this will enrage those driveling orators of democratic virtuousness. But compromises in coalition policy come more easily and are more likely in decision-making circles that are oligarchic, elitist, and strictly closed to the public, and which are politically autonomous and given sufficient leeway. The puppets of grassroots decision-making and the temple guards of party identity are totally unsuited for the kind of negotiation and settlement systems needed to formulate compromises in a Grand Coalition.

We should in fact reckon with a coalition committee of about eight to ten members forging the major political compromises and operating the legal machinery in the coming years. But then what remains of parliamentary debate on basic principles, of the parties’ function as an orientation aid, of democracy’s enlightening ethics? Just that: enlightenment, orientation, and general debate – for the coalition meetings are filled with nothing but bustling engineers of compromises, technicians of consensus decision-making. There they work out the details of what others drafted for large strategies and perspectives. The Kauders, Münteferings, Strucks, and de Maizières of this world might be the perfect organizers of political procedure, but so far none of these political administrators of the here and now have ever entertained any interesting ideas, original thoughts for the future, or even a political design strategy. They don’t have those kinds of talent, and they don’t need them. They are pure craftsmen of power, not conceptualists or visionaries or charismatic speakers. Basically, they only carry out and enable what others have forged and sketched – admittedly often imprecisely. Influencing, conceiving, drafting, planning, introducing ideas, leading the great debate, anticipating the future, setting agendas, defining the essential issues of society and politics – that is the task of brilliant parliamentarians and formidable party members. No coalition meeting can take this away.

Center for Political Blueprints

The political leeway for this in the German Bundestag is greater than usual under the conditions of a Grand Coalition. Grand Coalitions loosen the fetters of discipline and relieve the pressure of uniformity. There are greater options for dissenting opinions, special groups, unorthodox motions, and headstrong speeches than in times of smaller coalitions with slim, precarious majorities. That is why the self-esteem of German Bundestag representatives increased so much between 1966 and 1969.* The parliamentary factions of the government coalition no longer saw themselves solely as the cabinet’s parliamentary executive; rather they also saw themselves as the primary site for making decisions and setting agendas.

That is how the German Bundestag should view itself in the coming four years: as a center for political blueprints. And that is precisely what was lacking in previous legislative periods. The parliament did not lose influence on account of para-constitutional coalition meetings and expert commissions. Complex societies have long since stopped being able to exist without such informal structures and negotiation systems. Parliament forfeited its clout because, in the end, the Bundestag representatives were no longer able to outline major goals, substantiate norms, set standards and priorities, and create meaningful interrelationships. It was the loss of the programmatic as well as the oratorical and imaginative fabric that damaged the standing of the Bundestag.

Modern, fragmented, enlightened societies require both compromise-ready efficiency and charismatic, programmatic persuasiveness. These two things thrive in different arenas with opposing logic. That is what makes politics so difficult and often so hard to comprehend. Political coalitions require effective, reliable, and silently operative elite groups in order to forge compromises. But they also need self-assured, publicly engaged parliamentarians who set the standards, come up with catchy slogans, and even more: who are able to prioritize key concepts that guide the political alliance. [ . . . ]

* The period of the first and – until 2005 – only Grand Coalition government – eds

Source: Franz Walter, “Die Türen fest geschlossen” [“Behind Tightly Closed Doors”], Frankfurter Rundschau, November 22, 2005, p. 7.

Translation: Allison Brown

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