What do governing parties in Germany talk about in their coalition agreements?

FOTO CREDIT: edar/Pixabay

Governance in multi-level settings is complicated. Most parties do not only compete against each other at the national level but also at the regional, the local or even the European level (see e.g. Braun and Schmitt, forthcoming; Gross and Jankowski, 2020; Müller, 2013). To complicate matters even further, parties do not stop at policy signalling after elections, but they write coalition agreements if they are able to enter government after successful coalition negotiations. While previous research analysed the length and comprehensiveness of coalition agreements extensively (see e.g. Bowler et al., 2016; Eichorst, 2014; Indridason and Kristinsson, 2013; Krauss, 2018), the specific challenges of coalition agreements in multi-level settings have so far been neglected. When writing coalition agreements, the parties have at least two options to choose from when deciding what to include in the joint contract. On the one hand, they can include those topics that are relevant and salient for their voters. On the other hand, they can also consider the political environment they bargain in. In our recent article in German Politics, we concentrate on the latter option and ask: Which topics do governing parties cover in their coalition agreements in multi-level settings?

We take the multi-level setting of Germany as an illustrative case. As in other multi-level settings, different political levels have different legal competences over specific policy fields in Germany. Most legislative powers are concentrated at the federal level while states have the exclusive legislative competence for education policy, cultural policy, police and media. However, there are also policy fields for which the federal and state level have shared competencies such as taxation, social policy or labour policy (Stecker, 2015). Local governments are largely seen as administrative institutions although local councils sometimes adopt statutes or propositions that are comparable to laws at the national and regional level (Gross and Debus, 2018). Without going too much into detail it suffices to say that the German multi-level system is characterised by significant joint-decision making powers, due to the concurrent legislation at the federal and state level, and because the state and local administrations act as the executors of these laws (Benz and Zimmer, 2011; Kropp and Behnke, 2016). Nevertheless, we would expect that governing parties at various political levels will primarily focus on those issues where they have exclusive legal competences (e.g. the national government should exclusively deal with inter- and supranational issues).

Yet, that’s when party strategies, dynamic party competition and voters’ political interest kicks in. Among other things, German voters primarily care about federal policies. Therefore, ‘sub-national parties in Germany and their leaders are incentivised to centre competition for regional votes around federal issues’ (Stecker, 2015: 1309), and this should also be reflected in regional coalition agreements. Furthermore, according to Article 50 of the German Basic Law the German Länder are involved in federal and European legal matters and administration. Regional government parties might use the content of their coalition agreements to signal to the federal government that they are not willing to allow it to limit states’ autonomous legislative responsibilities in policy areas in which the consent of the German Länder is necessary to pass a law. Consequently, we expect that the higher the level of joint decision-making between the various political levels is, the more political actors will balance their attention towards these topics in the coalition agreements.

In order to test our hypotheses, we rely on data from 190 coalition agreements in Germany between 1990 and 2017 by combining data from the Political Documents Archive for national and regional coalition agreements and the Local Manifesto Project  for local coalition agreements in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Table 1 provides a descriptive overview of the length of coalition agreements. Not surprisingly, national and regional coalition agreements are way longer than the local ones, and also vary in length to a greater extent.

Table 1: Number of words in German coalition agreements

2019_october_MG_SK_table1Note: Total number of words in German coalition agreements at the national, regional, and local level (1990-2017).

To extract the share of attention that is being attributed to ten different policy areas in the various coalition agreements we make use of the dictionary coding approach (see e.g. Laver and Garry 2000) We relied on previous research (Bergmann et al., n.d.; Jakobs and Jun, 2018; Pappi and Seher, 2009) to allocate words to our dictionary categories but also added new ones by reading through randomly selected coalition agreements in our sample. In the end, the construction of our dictionary was an iterative process in which we started off with a basic dictionary, ran the analysis and then added missing words and deleted or re-allocated others after checking for inconsistencies.

Figure 1 shows the results of our dictionary coding. The red bars show the shares for the coalition agreements at the federal level, the green bars signal the state level and the blue bars represent the shares for the local level. Overall, the salience varies not only between the different levels within the multi-level system of Germany but also between the different policy domains.

Figure 1: Share of policy fields in German coalition agreements

2019_october_MG_SK_figure1Note: The figure presents the share of ten policy areas in German coalition agreements at the local, regional, and national level (1990-2017). Note that the basis for comparison of the shares is the sum of the ten policy areas.

If we take a closer look at the different levels, we see that the federal level focuses mainly on the policy domains “Agriculture, Environment, Energy, Climate” (19 per cent), “Welfare, Family, Health” (16 per cent) and “Economy” (15 per cent). Especially the results for the latter two categories lend support to our hypotheses since the legislative competences of the federal level are rather strong in these categories. The state level also strongly focuses on these three categories but also puts major emphasis on the categories “Education” and “Infrastructure, Transportation, Digitization”. The state level has (almost) exclusive competences for education and there is a large degree of joint decision-making with the federal level regarding infrastructure.

Most strikingly, however, is the fact that the topic “Education” is most prominently covered in local coalition agreements. At first sight, these seems rather surprising; yet, local municipalities oversee the implementation of education-related legislative acts that were enacted at the regional level. More importantly, we dug deeper into the content of local coalition agreements and discovered that the coalition partners at the local level prominently talk about the refurbishment of schools and kindergartens, which is one of the most fiercely discussed topics in German local politics. The same applies for the policy fields of “Infrastructure, Transportation, Digitization”, “Fiscal” and “Economy” when it comes to the improvement of (local) public transport, broadband expansion and attracting companies to locate in specific areas.

Linking these first empirical insights to the ongoing discussions on ‘dual accountability’, party responsiveness and ‘clarity of responsibility’ in multi-level systems, these results indicate that governing parties at various political levels do not necessarily stick to those policy areas they are exclusively responsible for but additionally address other policy fields. Our next research steps will start from these results by conducting more in-depth analyses on potential factors that might explain these variations by looking at individual parties’ strategies, their position-taking and issue emphasis in their respective election manifestos, as well as voters’ preferences at the time of writing the coalition agreements.

By Martin Gross and Svenja Krauss in October 2019


Martin Gross is currently a professor at the Chair of Political Systems and European Integration at the Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science, Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich. Additionally, he is an External Fellow of the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research, University of Mannheim. His research focuses on local politics, party competition and issue emphasis in multi-level systems and European integration and EU Cohesion policy. His work was published in Party Politics, West European Politics, German Politics and Public Choice.

Svenja Krauss is a DAAD Lecturer at the University of Essex. Her research focuses on comparative politics, especially coalition governments, political parties and political behavior. So far, she has published on the impact of coalition agreements on governments’ stability and she currently analyzes the interplay between portfolio allocation and control mechanisms in coalition governments. Her work was published in West European Politics and German Politics.



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