Liberals confront Greens on two continents

That title contains an equivocation. In the internationally accepted sense, Australia’s Liberal Party, despite the half-hearted efforts of Malcolm Turnbull, is a conservative party, not a liberal party; it is a member not of Liberal International but of the centre-right International Democrat Union.

Nonetheless, as a primarily middle-class party that professes some allegiance to the free market, its electoral position is comparable in some ways to that of liberal parties. And events last weekend throw up a fascinating contrast in relations between such parties and the Greens.

The big headline was from Germany, where that country’s Liberals (the Free Democrats, or FDP) on Sunday walked out of coalition talks to form a new government with the Christian Democrats and Greens. Liberal leader Christian Lindner portrayed the decision as a matter of principle, saying “It is better not to govern than to govern wrongly.”

But most reports suggest that agreement between the three parties was very close, and that the remaining policy differences were small. Lindner appears to have been motivated not by any specific stumbling block, but by a more general fear of being seen to give up too much of the FDP’s separate identity. That was the lesson he took from the party’s disastrous result in 2013, when it fell below the 5% threshold after four years as junior partner to the Christian Democrats.

Voters, however, are unlikely to take kindly to a new election, after having delivered what looked like a perfectly workable governing majority in the last one. Yet it’s not clear whether other options are any better; chancellor Angela Merkel sounds decidedly cool on the idea of minority government, and even if the FDP abstains, Christian Democrats and Greens between them do not have a relative majority (although they’re close: 313 seats as against 316 for the combined Social Democrats, far left and far right).

The Liberals have form in this department. In 2005 they refused to go into coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens after those two parties lost their combined majority, instead forcing a grand coalition between centre-right and centre-left. In the short term that worked for the Liberals; the following election, in 2009, saw their best ever result. But it abdicated their historic role as the balancing centrist party, tying them more closely to the right and warping the development of German party politics.

Then and now, the subtext is the rivalry between the Liberals and Greens. Although both their image and some of their policy positions are very different, they are competing for very much the same sort of voters: the young, the socially engaged, the educated middle class. Their enmity is the result not of distance but of proximity, and if they cannot work out a way to co-operate, German politics is going to be the loser.

And a rather similar rivalry – even less acknowledged by those concerned – marks the relationship between Australia’s Liberal Party and Greens, as evidenced in Saturday’s by-election in the Victorian state seat of Northcote.

As is common for by-elections well outside its territory, the Liberal Party declined to field a candidate. In what was basically a straight fight between the Greens and Labor (no-one else managed more than 5.2%), the Greens prevailed comfortably, winning with 55.6% of the two-party-preferred vote, a swing of 11.7%.

A number of reasons can be offered for the win, but clearly the absence of a Liberal candidate was an important one. In 2014, almost three-quarters of Liberal voters had followed the how-to-vote card and preferenced Labor ahead of the Greens. Left to their own devices on Saturday, many of those votes evidently went to the Greens, either directly or via preferences.

The swing to the Greens correlates well with the pattern of the Liberal vote in 2014; the three lowest swings were among the four worst Liberal booths, and the three highest swings were among the four best. Although many Liberal voters obviously stayed home, the Greens picked up a lot of the rest.

Last week had already shown the Liberal leadership to be out of touch with its voters, when results of the same-sex marriage plebiscite revealed much stronger than expected support in safe Liberal seats, even those usually thought of as conservative areas. Now it seems that (at least in the inner city) Liberal voters also fail to go along with their leaders’ demonisation of the Greens.

State Liberal leader Matthew Guy responded on Sunday by threatening to not field candidates in Northcote and similar seats at the next state election, unless (impossibly enough) Labor were to direct preferences to Liberals ahead of Greens in seats where the two are in competition.

Guy’s threat is most unlikely to materialise; for one thing, it would probably cost the Liberals an upper house seat. But it also involves a basic inconsistency: the argument is that Labor should preference against the Greens because they are dangerous extremists, but the threat is only effective because Guy knows that many of his voters disagree, and would support the Greens ahead of Labor if they were given the choice.

Like in Germany, the underlying reality is that, to the extent they can claim to be a broadly liberal party, the Liberals are competing with the Greens for much the same pool of voters: the educated, affluent middle class.

And just as that rivalry in Germany seems to have pushed the Liberals to the right in an effort to differentiate themselves, so the Australian Liberals – who went down the same track, and further, a long time ago – are finding that if they define themselves by hostility to the Greens, their voters may be reluctant to follow them.


Disclosure: Northcote is the neighboring electorate to mine, and I handed out how-to-votes and scrutineered for the Greens candidate on Saturday.


18 thoughts on “Liberals confront Greens on two continents

  1. I persist with the notion that Merkel is the problem. Three terms as Chancellor is already one too many, let alone four. Not that I see any short-term solution, except that if they have to have another election perhaps she might retire now.
    But because Merkel has failed to create a coalition surely the President should invite the next biggest party, SPD, to have a go? Given the more equal status of the parties, is that at all viable? (Is the Left a viable member or are they extremists no one else wants?)
    And how solid is the CDU/CSU? (Some of the various combinations without them need about 60 extra seats to reach the 355 required.)
    I am also thinking of the EU and Macron in whatever the German outcome is. I’ve lost faith in Merkel ever being a proper European leader, despite her national electoral success. For all the stuff about her being the de facto world leader in the Trump age, I can’t see it; where are all the ideas of contributions to solving all the hot problems, not least Syria and north Africa? It is time for Germany and Europe to progress beyond Merkel.


    1. Thanks Michael. I think that regardless of one’s opinion of Merkel, the chance of forming a government out of the present parliament without her is negligible. Social Democrats + Left + Greens, even if they were willing to co-operate (and they weren’t last time around) is still a long way short of a majority, 289 out of 709. If Greens and Liberals were fine together and somehow just couldn’t make this one work because of the Christian Democrats, then you could (just) imagine an SPD+FDP+Greens combo that would form a minority government with Left support, but that evidently wasn’t the case. As things stand, there seem to be only three possibilities: (a) Greens and FDP learn to work together, (b) the two major parties co-operate, formally or not, or (c) fresh elections (which probably won’t solve anything).


      1. I reluctantly agree to this awful reality. But, but, but …

        an SPD+FDP+Greens combo that would form a minority government with Left support, but that evidently wasn’t the case.

        “Evidently”? That was my point: it hasn’t been formally attempted. Seems to me the president should give them the opportunity (isn’t he formally obliged to turn to the second largest party after the first has failed to resolve things? Apparently Martin Schulz will meet Steinmeier on Thursday.). The reason why both SPD and FDP find it difficult to work in a CDU/CSU dominated coalition is because history has shown they suffer in the next election cycle. But in these alternative coalitions the partners are more equal. From what I have read FDP and Greens had essentially resolved their differences and it was really this gorilla factor that has made FDP think twice (last time they fell below the 5% threshold!).

        I agree that it is unlikely that Merkel can be left out of any solution. However, many political commenters are saying that this does signal a considerable diminution of her power and influence. She doesn’t want either to run a minority government (which presumably wouldn’t actually be too difficult) or another election. The polls show nothing much would change with a new election (except presumably if Merkel retired–this is what she should do, in the national interest but of course party interests will reign …). Alas, why is there such a leadership deficit everywhere we turn in the democratic world (France perhaps exempted)? And, as I wrote earlier, I have always thought Merkel herself is part of this leadership vacuum even if she can win elections (sort of).
        Incidentally I am disappointed and even offended, because I expected much more of a high-level scientist; she is a physicist with a PhD in quantum chemistry (I have a PhD in biochemistry and molecular genetics but I don’t even know what quantum chemistry really is!). But there is little sign that she brings a clear and sharp analytical mind to bear on the horrible complexities confronting us. Indeed she seems a bit of a weather-vane which is really the last thing the world needs. (Contrast with Macron ….)


      2. Hah, just read this (below) in the Guardian. It neatly sums up my own view:

        In the centre-right Die Welt newspaper, the commentator Thomas Schmid argued that the largest share of the blame for the government paralysis lay with the chancellor.
        “She has spend weeks practising with her famously passive patience. She moderated. As far it is known, she did not add any of her own impulses to the talks or lend it momentum,” he said.
        “The Merkel method has come to an end. There’s no alternative: until today, that has been her motto. It has allowed her to gain formidable victories, especially on the international stage. But both internationally and nationally it has driven a depoliticisation of politics that has become especially evidence in the parliament’s loss of purpose.”

        I think this passivity is inherent in Merkel (combined with a stubborn streak), but it also happens after a leader and/or party remains in power for too long. In reality, despite all its overt success, Germany is in a not dissimilar situation of unsatisfactory stasis like France was, and it needs a breakthrough leader like Macron. And of course we wouldn’t be talking about it if it didn’t also matter to Europe and the world.


      3. Well, the speculation about the end of the era of Merkel continues to build. My response is, all too late. Meanwhile it appears the SPD leader has met with the President but the news reports appear to be more speculative than informed on what happened. Here is the Guardian:

        “Martin Schulz, the leader of the Social Democratic party (SPD), ruled out another “grand coalition” after his party’s worst postwar performance in federal elections in September. He reiterated his stance after the collapse on Sunday of talks about a three-way coalition between the CDU, the Free Democratic party (FDP) and the Greens.

        But Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a fellow Social Democrat, will appeal to Schulz to reconsider at a meeting between the two on Thursday. There is speculation that the SPD leader could face calls to step aside at a party conference in two weeks’ time if he refuses to change his stance.

        I didn’t know Steinmeier was a SPD. And am I wrong in thinking that this (speculation) that he was strong-arming Schulz is quite inappropriate? There appears a stubborn anti-rational spell over everyone that another period of Merkel is what Germany and the world needs, whereas the evidence points to the exact opposite. The commentariat sages are behaving as if Merkel leaving politics would be a disaster whereas I reckon it would be a huge opportunity. Which of course never comes without risks. But I was happy to see a piece by one of those Project Syndicate types confirming my long-held view that the reality is that Merkel has institutionalised a stasis in Germany and in fact the EU. Here’s another extract (Philippe LeGrain, PS):
        Merkel’s passing would not be a disaster for Germany or Europe. The German economy is not as successful as many believe: workers have scarcely benefited from the country’s export prowess, public investment is inadequate, and its manufacturing heartland, which specializes in incremental innovation, is ill-prepared for looming digital disruption. Under Merkel’s watch, the economy has coasted, rather than addressing its mounting weaknesses.
        Merkel also deserves a big share of the blame for the mess in which the EU finds itself. Throughout the eurozone crisis, in which Germany’s position as creditor-in-chief thrust Merkel into the driver’s seat, she did just enough to keep the show on the road but no more. She never tried to persuade Germans of their responsibility as an economic hegemon to fix the system fairly, in the interests of all.

        and …
        But while Merkel herself may not be missed much, a power vacuum in Berlin is a blow for hopes to revive the EU. Merkel used to lament the weakness of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande; now the shoe is on the other foot. Macron’s bold plans to reboot the European project are based on a renewed Franco-German partnership. Without a strong German counterpart willing to take the necessary political risks, he will struggle to advance his plans to reform the eurozone and pursue closer integration in migration, defense, and much else that is important to Germany itself.
        If Macron is to make progress he will need to rely more on ad hoc alliances with other EU leaders. He may also need to double down on his ambitious plans to reshape European politics. Ultimately, though, the best he can hope for is that the interregnum in Berlin is relatively brief and that Merkel’s successor is more bravely pro-European.

        The thing is that Merkel was never going to be that necessary partner to Macron and so, rather than a “blow”, this is a great opportunity. Got to hope Germans get their act together –and I assuredly don’t mean another 4 years of AM.
        Final crazy thought bubble: I wonder if Macron could intervene to persuade FDP to join the SPD & Green? Someone has to start thinking out of the box in which they have locked themselves.


      4. Here is a bit of Simon Jenkins from today’s Guardian:

        “The same casualness infuses the present Brussels negotiations. It may be dismaying to see the EU’s Barnier treat David Davis as might a counter-reformation cardinal some pesky Lutheran princeling. Barnier clearly cares nothing for Europe, only for the Holy Brussels Church and its budget. But in response Britain seems devoid of interest. It shows no vision of an endgame, as if it did not mind about Brexit either way. This is precisely how Europe slithered to war in centuries past.
        Europe is not going to war. But its internal-government relations are ever more brittle. The prospect is of another credit crunch, the crippling of the Greek economy, mass unemployment in Italy and Spain, and a critical need for a deal with Russia.
        Europe needs a leader. If Merkel is not to be one, then who? Surely not the egotistical Emmanuel Macron? It would have been a golden opportunity for Britain to seize the helm, if only it had not abandoned ship.

        Jenkins appears to be allowing a bit of typical Francophobia to creep in (is there a single national leader who is not egotistical?). Macron may not be the messiah but there is not a single Brit politician with any vision anywhere to be seen. And ditto the EU stage.


      5. Sorry, I’ve been busy with other things the last few days. But the SPD has now changed its tune and is suggesting it might be amenable to some sort of deal with Merkel. I don’t agree with your view of Merkel; I think she’s about as good as it gets in Europe these days. But regardless of that, the problem is that there’s no majority possible without her. An SPD-Greens-Left agreement just might be possible, but that’s a long way short of a majority. It would need the Liberals as well, and we’ve already discovered they’re not willing to work with the Greens, so they’re certainly not going to work with the Left. Yes, the SPD would have to be given a chance before fresh elections were called, but on those numbers it’s Merkel or nothing.


      6. I think any unwillingness to work with the Greens is very conditional. In the context of a overpowering CDU/CSU the FDP find it intolerable that they would be relegated in the power-stakes little different to the Greens. It would be different in a SPD-dominated coalition.

        Re Merkel, it is not just me you are disagreeing with but all those I have cited above, including Simon Jenkins and other heavy-weights from Project Syndicate (which doesn’t mean they are correct …). The only factor I see in this Merkel worship is a mother comfort thing–it’s like the entire nation are millenials still living at the parental nest. But at some point we all have to leave home to make our own way in the world.
        Here is something I read today:
        “In a subdued press conference yesterday, Mr Schulz (SPD) kept all his potions open. “We go into talks without knowing yet where they will lead,” he said. “Maybe we will get a constellation that has not yet existed in the Federal Republic of Germany. We should not be afraid of that.””
        Also: “Mr Schulz has urged a more integrated EU, something Mrs Merkel has been lukewarm about.” It would be the triumph of hope over experience to think Merkel is any kind of solution to the EU’s problems, not to mention the ME.

        I am heartened to hear this, while also glumly realizing that Schulz is under a lot of pressure, including his own party, to re-form the same-old, same-old coalition. But as comforting as that might be, it would be false comfort. The argument that in the face of Trump, Brexit and a surging Xi in China, Europe needs this “stability” is almost totally wrong. It is the stasis in the face of obvious problems that is steadily undermining progress or any confidence that progress is possible. As the old saying goes:
        “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin


  2. “The old is dying but the new cannot be born…”
    – Antonio Gramsci

    There’s more to the quote than that and it would be simplistic and misguided to to apply the Italian Marxist intellectual’s analysis of Italy post-WW1 as an explanation of the paralysis of German or Europe-wide politics today.

    However, as someone once said, the principal lesson of history is that people don’t learn the lessons of history…


  3. I’m a bit late to the party, sorry. The following has nothing to do with the Australian Liberal/Green relationship but everything to do with German liberalism.

    As almost all english languages articles report, the FDP is a pro-business, low tax, economic-liberal party. It is deeply embedded in the boardrooms of Germany Inc. The Greens neither want nor have that sort of pro-business line. Their focus on ecology is seen in many boardrooms as an attack on profits. The Greens’ insistence that coal-fired power stations be closed down sooner than later was one of the policy reasons why the coalition talks collapsed.

    The FDP does have a strong social-liberal wing. Here they and the Greens are most similar. One example is their shared rejection of the surveillance state. But the FDP also has a national conservative wing. Sniffing the wind, it is opposed to family reunion for asylum seekers (it – and the CSU – would prefer that tens of thousands of men be left on their own, separated from their wives and kids. That can’t have any bad consequences, can it, eh?). That was another sticking point that led to the collapse of the talks. But on this point the Greens were very close to a compromise, one which may well have torn the party apart. Had the FDP leaders kept their cool, the compromise may have split the Greens. They didn’t keep their cool. The Greens have come out of the talks rather well.

    The FDP also has a decent sized mob of economics professors in its ranks (lest we forget: economics professors spawned the extreme right-wing AfD). They’re legalists and theorists. They insisted that the coalition contract prohibit any and all Euro bailout funds. The CDU said that this would reduce the government’s ability to negotiate in Brussels. The Greens said, maybe bailout funds aren’t a bad idea? That was a third policy reason why talks collapsed.

    The FDP has in many respects (not all) a noble history. Together with Willy Brandt it secured treaties with the eastern European victims of Germany’s war of aggression, that accepted and acknowledged the loss of German territory. In 1989 FDP foreign minister Genscher, together with Kohl, brought about reunification. Together with the SPD and the CDU it has helped to develop one of the most liberal, most democratic and most free societies in the world, a powerhouse of ideas and goods. But with the rise of the Greens in this century, the FDP has lost its way. A key point to remember is that, from an Australian perspective, default German politics is centre-left (in spite of the rise of the hideous AfD). The FDP is a right-wing liberal party, the Greens are a left-wing liberal party.

    The FDP spat the dummy in the coalition talks because (my interpretation) an agreement was close. A successful Jamaica coalition would have been disadvantageous to the FDP. It would show that the Greens were able to work with the CDU in Berlin (even the Bavarian CSU was developing a certain respect for the Greens!). The CDU and the Greens developing a working relationship is seen by the FDP as a bigger threat to its long term survival than the warm embrace of Merkel, a woman has never met a man she couldn’t destroy. Apart from through the CDU/CSU, the FDP has no other way to power in Berlin.

    The FDP had to torpedo the talks, not for the sake of the country but for the sake of the party.

    I have no idea what their tactics will lead to.


    1. Thanks George – that very much agrees with my perception. I think the FDP sees the Greens as an existential threat, precisely because the policy differences between them are not huge: they’re competing for much the same voters. But like you, I don’t see how this is going to play out; if the FDP is seen to have forced a fresh election, voters will punish them for it. At best, there’ll be another grand coalition and the FDP will benefit in the same way they did in 2009, but even then, they’ll still have to negotiate a coalition with someone next time around.


    2. Thanks for that.

      Earlier I speculated that it was the double-whammy of losing (credibility and then electorally, next cycle of elections) to both CDU/CSU and the Greens that was too much for the FDP. And that perhaps the calculation was different (enough) in a coalition without the CDU/CSU. (I understand no one believes a government excluding them or Merkel is possible but ….). Is that at all feasible?
      If it is inconceivable then it is as you concluded: impossible for FDP to be part of any governing coalition!

      The FDP versus Greens battles are broadly comparable to the Australian Labor versus Greens here. Family feuds are so much more bloody than any other kind.


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