OPINION | Making coalition work: lessons from Germany's experience

08.06.2024 - Article

The country has vast experience in coalition governments and can offer advice on how it has managed to build trust, resolve conflicts and ensure cooperation among different political parties, writes Ambassador Peschke for Daily Maverick.

The country has vast experience in coalition governments and can offer advice on how it has managed to build trust, resolve conflicts and ensure cooperation among different political parties, writes Ambassador Peschke for Daily Maverick.

Screenshot© Daily Maverick

The 2024 national and provincial elections in South Africa were historic. They took place for the seventh time, after 30 years of democracy. They were hotly contested. The Electoral Commission pronounced them free and fair. To many, South Africa once again proved itself to be a beacon of democracy in the world.

The outcome and the allocation of seats in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures mirror the will of the people. And their will seems to be complex. On the national level and in some provinces, it gave no outright majority to any one of the parties, in most cases for the first time.

Perhaps this outcome was bound to happen at some point in a system of proportional democracy like South Africa’s. In any event, the voters have spoken and now it is the responsibility of those who were elected to put their voters’ wishes into practice.

This may not be an easy task. It requires a lot of wisdom, perseverance and patience. And if you look around the world, there are different ways to approach it.

There is the option to form a minority government, which looks for changing majorities in Parliament as needed, sometimes with additional arrangements. And there is the option to form a so-called coalition government made up of different parties that together have a majority in Parliament.

There is no inherent beauty in either of these arrangements. Nor is either an ideal system. They are just pragmatic ways to implement the will of an electorate that has not given a clear mandate to one single party.

And it is obvious that it is not easy to reach a consensus on sharing power between parties from different sides of the political spectrum. Even more so when everything needs to be done within a mere 14 days from the announcement of the election results before a president has to be elected.

The German experience

In Germany, over the past decades, we accumulated some experience of dealing with situations where there is no outright majority. In most cases, and unlike in some of our neighbouring countries, the preference has been for coalition governments.

Naturally, it is difficult to translate the experience of one country to another, where the context may be altogether different. Still, there may be some lessons that it might be useful to share.

So, in Germany, parties needed to learn that they would have to change their modus operandi after an election. The campaign is over. The voters have spoken and, in accordance with their mandate, parties would need to switch from the electioneering mode of the campaign to a more pragmatic and analytical mode of governing.

They would have to accept that the voters of the country have not given them a 100% mandate to put all their campaign promises and party principles into practice. Instead, they must find partners to help them to implement some of their policies, and at the same time accept that other parties would need to achieve some of their goals as well.

Of course, the further apart the parties are from each other on the political spectrum, the more difficult this may prove to be.

Compromise and transparency

Thus, our politicians – and voters – needed to learn that, in order to strike a powersharing deal, they would have to accept compromises. In order for them to be able to rely on their prospective coalition partners, they also needed a certain amount of trust in each other.

Trust, of course, does not come by itself. It needs to be built. One way to do so is to use the procedures that lead to a coalition agreement, or an alternative arrangement.

In Germany, like in South Africa, we love to talk about talks. Parties should take time for this. That way, the negotiating teams can get to know each other and get a feeling for their respective priorities, convictions and visions for the country. It could also serve to find out whether there is enough common ground to form a coalition, or to support a minority government.

Another thing that proved to be helpful in our experience is transparency. Especially in situations where parties come to work together that may not have envisaged this before, it may be useful to put any result of coalition negotiations into writing – and to make this agreement available to the public.

That way, the parties can make sure that the voters will be able to hold them and their coalition partners accountable. Writing down what has been agreed also serves to make negotiations transparent, commitments clear and agreements unequivocal.

If time allows, we in Germany have also made positive experiences with letting members or structures of the parties decide on the coalition agreement. This may enhance the legitimacy of any agreement.

It is clear that a coalition agreement does not have to span over 178 pages like the current German one. But we still found it advisable to talk not only about the allocation of positions in a possible government or power sharing arrangement, but to agree also on some kind of joint vision.

Such a joint vision could then be underpinned by a few key issues that need to be tackled jointly by parties that decide to cooperate. These joint initiatives can serve as a basic work programme for the legislative cycle.

Resolving Conflict

And then, our parties often find it useful not only to agree on a certain set of guiding principles of how to work with each other, but also some structures of decision-making and, ideally, a mechanism for conflict resolution. Because our experience is that, in any type of coalition or minority arrangement, there was no shortage of conflicts or disputes, by any measure.

Our coalition governments usually have a Koalitionsausschuss, or coalition committee, where the leaders of coalition, the chancellor or prime minister, and the chief whips would regularly sit together to solve disputes that may arise between the parties, often for hours on end and during long nights.

This is our – sometimes bumpy – experience. South Africa is an important partner for us and many other countries in the world. Its outstanding role on the African continent and in international affairs is undisputable.

As South Africa has cooperated well with successive German governments of various compositions, we look forward to engaging with the new South African government. God bless your wonderful country. sikelela South Africa.

Andreas Peschke is the German ambassador to South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini. His previous postings include spokesperson of the Federal Foreign Office, ambassador to the Republic of Kenya and director-general for European Affairs.

c. Daily Maverick

Top of page