German democracy should dare more like the Netherlands

The fragmentation of the Bundestag could prove to be an opportunity for democracy. This is already the case elsewhere.

Expert comment Published 22 September 2021 Updated 12 April 2022 3 minute READ

Pepijn Bergsen

Former Research Fellow, Europe Programme and UK in the World Programme

If the polls are to be believed, the German Bundestag will be more fragmented after the election on 26 September than ever before in German post-war history. Even the largest party is likely to get less than 30 per cent of the vote.

In the public debate this is equated with a setback for democracy and the suggestion that it might herald the return of the failed Weimar democracy. The fear is of endless coalition negotiations and political paralysis. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The emerging fragmentation can also be seen as an opportunity for democracy.

In many ways, Germany is going through a development that has long been in full swing in neighbouring European countries. Germany was one of the last western countries in which a right-wing populist party could establish itself.

It is now one of the last western countries to experience what is sometimes described as a ‘Dutchification’ of its political system an increasingly volatile electorate and a parliament no longer dominated by a few large mainstream parties, but in which several small and medium-sized parties struggle for power and influence.

The Netherlands is one of the prime examples of these developments. In the parliamentary elections in March of this year, 17 parties made it to the parliament. In Germany, the five per cent hurdle prevents such a wide variety of parties, but the trend is going in a similar direction. While the Union and the SPD together got around 90 per cent of the vote in the 1970s, they are now only likely to reach more than 50 per cent with great difficulty.

It is often argued this fragmentation fuels political disaffection and is the symptom of a crisis in democracy. But if that were true, one should be able to observe growing dissatisfaction with the political situation in the affected countries.

The opposite is the case. According to the European Commission’s Eurobarometer polls, satisfaction with the functioning of democracy is particularly high in countries with proportional electoral systems and many small parties. Denmark with 87 per cent and Sweden with 83 per cent are ahead of Great Britain (64 per cent) and France (50 per cent), but also ahead of Germany (73 per cent).

One explanation for this finding could be that in the fragmented systems with more parties on the ballot, the choices better reflect the political preferences of an increasingly differentiated electorate. The fragmentation of the party landscape is taking place against the background of changed voting behaviour voters are making their decisions more and more on the basis of their political preferences, while socio-economic and cultural characteristics are becoming less important. In other words, voters are becoming more picky.

The established parties are struggling with this development. This is particularly true of the social democratic parties which had to watch how their traditional working-class base often shifted their allegiances and new parties recognized and filled the gap in the market. In economic terms, competition in the political market is increasing.

Belgium is often cited as a warning example, where it has often not been possible to form a government even years after an election.

An increasing number of options on the ballot does not just allow voters to vote for a party more in line with their own political preferences, it also facilitates democratic renewal processes.

This has already been visible in Germany. With the growing importance of the climate issue, the Greens have gained popularity. And the far-right populist Alternative for Germany got around 1.5 million votes from previous non-voters in the 2017 federal election, in part because before then they presumably had not felt represented by any of the offerings.

The argument that increased party competition would radicalize political discourse does not stand up to closer scrutiny, as the example of the United States demonstrates. The Republican Party has radicalized within a two-party system. Dutchification may even limit the damage that such radicalization can do  it makes a difference whether the percentage of votes of a party which occupies the extremes is 40 or 20 per cent. The stability of a political system does not necessarily depend on the number of parties in its parliaments.

But is a fragmented parliament still capable of making decisions? Belgium is often cited as a warning example, where it has often not been possible to form a government even years after an election. Indeed, the decline of the mainstream parties means that compromises must be found between several partners.

The Dutch example shows however that this does not necessarily have to lead to a standstill. Most recently, the country has repeatedly managed to implement important reforms  including controversial ones such as the pension system. It has also always been possible to pass a budget in parliament, even if changing majorities were required.

This new reality will demand a lot from the political class in Germany, just as it did in other countries. This means not attempting to pacify the Bundestag like in recent decades, but it requires more consensus building and adept management of relationships with political allies and political foes alike as consensus building moves partly from within parties to between them.

Many will find this hard work as they struggle to build a governing coalition, possibly taking even longer than the almost six months after the election in 2017. A minority government that relies on changing coalitions may also be an option. In several Nordic democracies this has worked well.

In a democracy, however, it is not the job of the voters to deviate from their political goals to make life easier for politicians. Rather, politicians must change how they work to ensure that voting behaviour is effectively translated into political action. In this regard, Germans can still learn something from their neighbours.

This article was originally published by Zeit Online.