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When will Germany’s new government be in place?

The coalition agreement of the incoming government was released in a whirlwind on Wednesday afternoon, but there are still a few hurdles for the SPD, Greens and FDP before Olaf Scholz can take charge of the chancellery. Here's what happens next.

Christian Lindner, Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbcok, Robert Habeck
FDP leader Christian Linder, SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz, and Green Party co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck pose for photographs at the unveiling of the coalition pact on Wednesday, November 24th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

On Wednesday, the ‘traffic light’ coalition – named after the parties’ respective colours – unveiled their 177-page coalition pact, which included pledges to raise the minimum wage, maintain the debt brake, legalise cannabis and exit the coal industry by 2030. 

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s next government unveils coalition pact

Having managed to successfully combine policies from the centre-left Social Democrats, ecologically focused Greens and pro-business FDP to produce a set of policies in record time, it may seem like the traffic light is well on its way to forming a government. But there are still hurdles for all of the parties to clear before SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz can take his place in the Kanzleramt and relieve Merkel of her 16-year tenure.

Here’s what’s set to happen over the coming weeks as Germany sets about forming its new government. 

Party votes

Having negotiated hard to get their flagship policies in the coalition agreement, the SPD, Greens and FDP will now have to go back to their parties to vote on what’s been agreed.

For the SPD and FDP, the votes will take place at party conferences that are due to be held on the weekend of December 4th/5th.

The Greens have taken a slightly different route: starting on Thursday, the party will hold a digital vote in which party members will decide whether the Greens should enter government with the coalition agreement that was announced on Wednesday. 

According to German media sources, the Green Party members’ vote will be held online over ten days, and is due to conclude around the same time that the SPD and FDP will be holding their party conferences. If all goes according to plan, the parties should have the final green light for the coalition pact by the end of Sunday, December 5th. 

Ministerial jobs

So far, a handful of key government positions have been earmarked by candidates, among them the SPD’s Olaf Scholz as Chancellor and key FDP figures heading up the four ministries that the liberals will take control of.

Party leader Christian Lindner will become Finance Minister, general secretary Volker Wissing will take over as Transport Minister, parliamentary group leader Marco Buschmann will become Justice Minister and Bettina Stark-Watzinger will take over as Minister for Education. 

On the SPD side, Hubertus Heil looks set to keep his current job as Minister for Labour and Social Affairs in order to implement key policies such as the €12 minimum wage and the scrapping of Hartz IV.  

Hubertus Heil and Olaf Scholz
Hubertus Heil (left) will remain in place at Minister for Labour and Social Affairs. Other key cabinet positions have not yet been filled. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Philipp Schulze

Though some possible names have been bandied around, key jobs remained unfilled in five of the ministries the SPD are set to take over: the Interior Ministry, the newly formed Construction Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the Ministry for Business Development and the Ministry of Health. 

The Green’s co-leaders Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck are also eyeing important jobs in the next government, though these won’t be confirmed until the party members have voted on both the coalition agreement and proposed ministerial roles.

With the party’s agreement, however, it looks likely that Baerbock will become Germany’s first female Foreign Minister, while Robert Habeck will head up a ‘super ministry’ that will bring together the economy, energy and climate protection portfolios under one roof. 

For their other three ministries – Family, Environment and Agriculture – it remains unclear who’ll be in the driving seat, though Green Party parliamentary leaders Anton Hofreiter and Katrin Göring-Eckert are likely picks. 

READ ALSO: 

Handover

If everything goes smoothly in the parties’ internal votes, Scholz will be elected Chancellor in the week starting December 6th.

On the day of the Chancellor’s election, the cabinet will be appointed by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and sworn in at the Bundestag – Germany’s lower parliamentary house.

On the same day, Angela Merkel is expected to hand over the reins of the Chancellor’s Office to Scholz after 16 years in the job. Other ministries are expected to conduct their handovers the following day. 

Angela Merkel and Olaf Scholz
Finance Minister Olaf Scholz presents Angela Merkel with flowers at her last cabinet meeting as Chancellor of Germany. Merkel is expected to hand over to Scholz the same day he is voted in as  the new Chancellor. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP POOL | Markus Schreiber

Timeline 

Since the parties are expected to vote through the coalition pact on or by December 5th, we’re highly unlikely to see the new government in place before the 6th.

However, with the G7 summit set to take place in Liverpool from December 10th and a crucial federal and state roundtable on Covid scheduled for the 9th, Scholz and his coalition partners won’t want to waste any time before getting down to work.

One possible timeline is the Chancellor vote and handover will happen on Monday, December 6th, while the other ministers will take up their positions the following day. 

That will give whoever takes up the role of Health Minister a cool 48 hours to get to grips with the brief before meeting with state leaders to set a course for navigating Covid through the rest of winter.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany finalises new Covid restrictions for winter

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POLITICS

Why Germany’s supersize Bundestag might become smaller

With 736 MPs, the German Bundestag is one of the world’s largest parliaments - and keeps growing. But the coalition government wants to cap it at under 600 seats so it's not as bloated.

Why Germany's supersize Bundestag might become smaller

What’s happening?

The German Bundestag – the lower house of parliament – currently has 138 seats more than it technically should have.

Several attempts at reform in the past have so far failed to change this significantly. The country’s voting system was brought in following the war and it was seen as a compromise for smaller parties, who were worried they wouldn’t win any seats.

But now Germany’s political landscape has changed; there are no longer just two big parties – the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – vying for a majority. 

Now politicians from the ruling coalition, made up of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP), have come up with a drastic proposal.

In order to significantly reduce the size of the Bundestag, the ‘overhang mandates’ and therefore also the compensatory mandates to achieve the balance of power would be abolished. 

What will this mean for voters?

Reducing the size of parliament could change some considerations about how Germans vote. That’s because Germany’s complicated voting system is what makes the Bundestag so large.

When Germans vote in an election – most recently in September 2021 – they cast two votes. The first vote, or Erststimme, is a vote for the representative in your district and is counted in the same way as a district vote in the US, UK, or Canada would be counted.

Right now, if someone wins the first vote outright, they go into the Bundestag. The second vote, or Zweistimme, is more important, as it’s for a party. Each party is assigned a number of seats proportional to the number of second votes they got.

READ ALSO: ‘My vote counts’: How Germany’s new legion of foreign voters see the election

But what if more members win seats on the first vote than the share of the second vote results entitles them to? When that happens, the Bundestag is allocated additional seats to compensate. These are called the ‘overhang seats’ and they’re part of why the Bundestag has so many members. To make up for this, other parties also get more seats, to ensure that the relative proportion of parties in the Bundestag reflects the election result. 

There is also the question on if taxpayer-money is being spent wisely – each of those extra MPs is also entitled to staff. 

The joint proposal for reform from three MPs, each representing one of the three governing parties, would get rid of these overhang seats. The number of seats a party receives in the Bundestag would then be decided exclusively by the second vote, which would be renamed a ‘list vote’ or ‘Listenstimme‘.

It would mean that Bundestag would always have its intended size of 598 members, which is the aim of the reform. 

How would this work in practice?

According to the proposal, if a party wins more direct mandates in a federal state than it would be entitled to according to the result of the second vote, then the “surplus” direct mandates with the weakest result should be capped.

To ensure that the votes for these candidates are not forfeited, voters should have a “substitute vote” in addition to their first vote. With this, according to the proposal, they can choose the candidate who will be their second choice as constituency representative.

If the mandate of the “overhang candidate” were to be eliminated, these substitute votes would be counted instead and the winning candidate would enter the Bundestag. Unlike today, winning a constituency would no longer guarantee a Bundestag mandate. The reformers therefore want to rename the first vote “personal vote” and the second vote “list vote”.

The joint proposal also envisions reducing the number of constituencies in Germany from 299 to 280.

Is this definitely happening?

No. The proposal would still have to be debated by parliament and could run into resistance from members who rely on direct votes. The opposition Christian Democrats, for example, generally oppose any measures to get rid of overhang seats.

Vocabulary:

German Federal Parliament – (der) Bundestag

Member of German Parliament – Mitgleid des Deutschen Bundestages (MdB) or Bundestagsabgeordneter 

Vote – (die) Stimme

Overhang Seat – (das) Überhangmandat 

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