Danyal Bayaz has experienced many things during his first few weeks as a new MP, but boredom is not one of them. Two months after entering Germany’s parliament as a Green party candidate, Bayaz, 34, from Heidelberg, has watched rightwing politicians give each other standing ovations for Eurosceptic diatribes, leftwingers heckle the far right as racists and a former climate activist with dyed hair form unlikely alliances with Christian Democrats in tailored suits.
Last week Bayaz saw the dramatic collapse of coalition talks that would have seen his Green colleagues catapulted into government and now faces the possibility that his seat may come up for grabs again in fresh elections next spring. “Right now I am not even sure if it’s worth me getting a loyalty card here,” he quips as he orders a cappuccino in the Bundestag’s canteen.
For years, German politics were both mocked and admired for being too uneventful to the point of tedium. Only recently the lack of drama inside the reconstructed Reichstag’s circular plenary chamber led to calls for a more confrontational, Westminster-style approach. But as old geopolitical certainties have crumbled over the past 18 months, Berlin’s consensual, unexcitable style of policymaking has won new admirers.
The collapse of talks to form the next coalition government have exposed Angela Merkel’s diminished authority. Many are now beginning to wonder if the division wrought on Britain and the US by Brexit and Donald Trump has also descended on Europe’s biggest economy.
With Merkel’s last coalition partners, the Social Democratic party (SPD) and the Free Democrats (FDP), more eager on parliamentary opposition than on government posts, and an already ultra-oppositional Alternative für Deutschlandhoping to receive a further boost from the political standstill, commentators in Germany have started to evoke the darkest days of the Weimar Republic, when short-lived minority governments ruled by emergency decrees.
“Like in Weimar, the federal republic is now a multiparty system in which extreme parties have begun to paralyse the working of the parliamentary democracy,” wrote Stephen Szabo, an expert on US-German relations.
“Germany’s obsession with stability was largely a result of reforms aimed at avoiding the mistakes of the Weimar Republic,” said Anthony Glees, a historian at the University of Buckingham. “In spite of a proportional vote system, a 5% threshold for smaller parties guaranteed that postwar Germany was for decades a two-party state, where the power would lie safely in the centre.”
With polls for possible fresh elections next year predicting that both Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the SDP could drop below 30% while support for the FDP, the AfD, the Greens and the Left party continues to grow, Glees said, “that system is now biting Germany in the leg”.
Many historians warn of hastily drawn comparisons, however. “What’s wrong with Germany becoming more like multiparty democracies in the Netherlands or Scandinavia?” asked Andreas Schulz, a researcher on the history of German parliamentarianism.
Merkel has announced she is sceptical about forming a minority government, either on her own or with the Green party, which would have to form majorities with other parties vote by vote. But Schulz said the traumatic experience of seeing minority governments collapse and allow the rise of Adolf Hitler obscured the fact that minority governments worked efficiently elsewhere in Europe and even at a German state level. As the centre-left SPD is waking up to the potential cost of new elections and mulls over tolerating a minority government, it is possible that Merkel could eventually come to agree.
“The way the Bundestag had managed to integrate first the Green party in the 1980s and then the Left party at the start of the new millennium shows that our parliamentary system can adapt to new parties,” Schulz said.
“We sometimes forget that the Weimar Republic only had 10 years to mature and develop,” said Thomas Mergel, a historian at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Even during its short existence it had shown that a parliamentary system could teach the most intransigent political party the value of coalition forming, he argued.
In the 1920s and 30s, parliamentarians started to lose the ability to find compromises only once the Great Depression wreaked havoc with the German economy. New parliamentarians such as Bayaz are concerned that Germany’s new populist right could be quicker at learning to exploit the polarised political landscape than established parties.
Another debate saw conservatives, liberals, environmentalists and leftwingers join forces to oppose an AfD suggestion that Syrian refugees should be sent back to their homeland since Islamic State had “almost been beaten” and security levels “substantially improved” in the country. The motion was soundly defeated, but the rightwing newcomers had found their stage.
Bayaz is nevertheless optimistic that a livelier Bundestag can have its upsides. “There is a new pluralism in the debating chamber,” he said. “Parties are not as easy to keep apart as they used to be.”
The son of a German mother and a Turkish father with a PhD on financial markets, Bayaz said he would have enjoyed a conservative-liberal-green “Jamaica” coalition that cut through old political certainties. With his smart navy suit and short hair, he has in his first weeks already been mistaken by the press for a member of the FDP and drawn confused looks from the rightwing populists. It is not impossible to conceive that newcomers like Bayaz could end up ushering in a German minority government after all.
One of the hangovers of the Weimar Republic is that a president cannot call a snap election without making parliament vote in a chancellor first. The assumption is that a chancellor Merkel, who has not organised a governing coalition, would fail to gain a majority in such a vote. New MPs who have only just started to find a taste for their life in politics, from whatever party, may have a different idea.
THE WEIMAR YEARS
Born amid the chaos following the first world war, the Weimar Republic lasted, unofficially, from 1919 to 1933 and struggled to cope with extremism, hyperinflation and resentment at Germany’s treatment by the war’s victors. In order to reduce political conflicts, a proportional representation system was adopted, leading to a series of coalitions that struggled to govern. Political violence was endemic. By 1923, there had been 376 political assassinations. US loans helped recovery from 1924 to 1929, but the Wall Street crash led to recall of the loans and the start of a new economic crisis, rising unemployment and dissatisfaction with mainstream parties. In January 1933 the president, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Nazi party leader Adolf Hitler chancellor. That year, after the Reichstag fire, Hitler seized absolute power and Germany became a fascist dictatorship.