It’s approaching three weeks since the German election, and the process of settling on a new government continues on its leisurely way. Last week the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats held their first official meeting on the subject (although of course there had been previous informal discussions), but they are still being described as “exploratory talks” and the parties agreed to meet again after ten days.

Meanwhile, the Christian Democrats are keeping their options open by also talking to the Greens. A meeting is to be held today, although the Greens have indicated that the Christian Democrats will have to make significant compromises for an agreement to be possible.

The Christian Democrats have said they would like to settle on a coalition partner within a week or so, following which there would be more serious talks on an actual coalition agreement rather than pursuing coalition talks with both prospects in parallel and seeing which comes up with a better deal. The whole process could take two months or more before a new government is in place.

To an Australian eye this is all deeply peculiar. Australian governments are almost always sworn in within about a week of the election, ready to start work again. The fact that they might benefit from a period of rest and reflection after the stresses of an election campaign seems not to register at all.

And this isn’t just because Australian election results are usually cut-and-dried. Even when the result is in doubt and negotiations have to be held with minor parties or independents, they happen quickly; every delay is treated by the media and other politicians as a scandal, as if nothing were more important than getting government going again.

By way of example, the following table shows the last six occasions in Australia where no party or pre-existing coalition has won a majority at a state or federal election. The 1999 Victorian case is exceptional because a fresh election was required in Frankston South, but in every other case the period between the election and the swearing-in of a new government has been well under a month. There is nothing remotely comparable to Germany’s potential two months.

In European terms, Germany’s experience isn’t particularly unusual. Belgium — admittedly an extreme case — took 541 days to put together a government after the 2010 election, and intervals of more than a month occur quite frequently. Even the relatively straightforward German result of 2009 led to a month’s worth of negotiations (see my account here). But the anglosphere has quite different expectations: a delay of a few days in Britain in 2010 was regarded as exceptional.

Why is this? Could it be that Australians think government is so important that the idea of being without one for more than a week is unbearable? Surely not. Perhaps it’s the reverse: Europeans rely more on government, so it’s regarded as more important to get the formation of it right, and therefore worth taking the time over?

I suspect part of the answer is a different role for bureaucracy. In Europe, government is more controlled by a strong and professionalised bureaucracy, so the idea of letting the bureaucrats run the show themselves for a time, with only caretaker ministers, is less scary. The same attitude leads occasionally to the appointment of a government of “technocrats” at times of political crisis, something unheard of in Australia.

But there’s also a different expectation about what a coalition involves. Australians expect a coalition to be already in existence at election time, so they can judge it on the basis of a joint record or a joint program. But joint coalition programs are unusual in Europe; each party presents itself independently at an election, even those that have no hope of winning government on their own, and then the formation of a coalition afterwards involves the negotiation of common policy positions.

In one sense that deprives voters of choice, since they don’t know in advance what deals might be struck. But in another sense it empowers them, because they can vote for a smaller party in the knowledge that if it does unexpectedly well, it will carry the weight to have more of its policies implemented, rather than being tied to a pre-existing bargain with a larger rival.

Conversely, a party that does deals of which its voters disapprove will be punished at the next election. That seems to be part of the problem for Germany’s Free Democrats, who lost more than half their votes and dropped below the 5% threshold for representation. Their voters evidently felt that they had moved too close to the Christian Democrats and hadn’t gained enough in return for their support.

So despite the election being widely reported as a decisive win for chancellor Angela Merkel, it is yet to yield an actual result in terms of what policies the new government will be committed to or what personnel it will be composed of. That doesn’t seem to worry the Germans, but it wouldn’t do in Australia.

Peter Fray

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