News 2008


A grand coalition was the right solution

The East African

10. March 2008

Q and A: In November 2005, the major parties in Germany - The Christian Democrats, Christian Social Union and Social Democrats - formed a grand coalition after no party won enough seats to govern in the September elections. WALTER LINDNER, German ambassador to Kenya, last week shared the experiences of his country's grand coalition with Special Correspondent FRED OLUOCH

Does the advent of Kenyaís all-inclusive government mean the death of multiparty democracy?

The grand coalition must be for a limited time. The ideal democracy is one with an alternative government in the form of shadow Cabinet.

But there are some circumstances when it is necessary to have such a government ó such as when you have pressing national issues that require broad social and political consensus to solve.

In Germany, it was the reform of the security systems, pensions and tax systems. This you canít do if you have only 50 per cent of the government, while other 50 per cent is opposing it. You need a broad spectrum and then you can contain the pressure from those who will be protesting against it. In Kenya it was the land issue, the reform of the constitution, reform of institutions such as the Electoral Commission of Kenya and tackling the gap between the rich and the poor. These are issues that require broad consensus.

With the terrible outbreak of violence in Kenya, how can you heal a country when you continue with this polarisation? So, I think this is the right time to do this in the country. It is a new concept for Kenya and even the continent. I havenít seen this kind of a power-sharing agreement based on a grand coalition, where one side already sitting in the government gives up some share of power to the other.

Understandably, so many question marks have been raised in Kenya about the deal. We have also been asked the same questions but from the German point of view, a grand coalition can be the right solution at certain moments in the history of a country.

What are the pitfalls the German grand coalition has experienced in the past three years?

Well, a grand coalition is not a love affair, it is never about sympathy and you donít have to fall in love with each other. In fact, you shouldnít give up your political convictions. You still have your party affiliation, but it is all about pragmatism. You have to set aside those things that divide you and the parties, and have to put in the forefront those issue that overlap or common positions that serve the interests of all the people.

Of course, there are always hiccups in a grand coalition. Donít forget you have campaigned against each other, sometimes using very harsh words, and then you have the very same people in the same coalition. It has to be possible to take the country forward. The secret to survival in a grand coalition is to find ways and mechanisms to ensure that not every hiccup ó and they will definitely come up ó causes a major crisis in the coalition.

What sort of hiccups has the German coalition experienced so far?

Power struggles between parliament and the government, where you would think they did not respect the chemistry of the grand coalition. There is also violation of the coalition agreement, whereby the bigger it is, the more room there is for interpretation in the future.

Our agreement of 2005 is 120 pages long. It is something that you try to put party programmes against and see where there is overlap, then make compromises. We went through all the topics including energy, defence, health, trade links and politics to try and hammer out common grounds and pick out what the priorities are that need to be achieved in four years.

For instance, in Germany there are sometimes conflicts between the coalition and the parties, because the coalition is bent on working together but the parties are much more concerned about keeping their own identity. However, you must have committees to discuss these issues continuously and reach compromise, especially where the scheduled time-frame could be running against the realities on the ground.

I cannot, for instance, tell how Kenyans are going to tackle land reforms. Problems may come up, but that is the nature of politics. The most important thing is for Kenyans to internalise that the coalition is a normal thing in a democracy. The hiccups that will arise will be normal and should not be seen as the end of the coalition. It takes statesmanship and skill to manoeuvre through such coalitions. For Kenya, it is a good opportunity to sort out the underlying problems. This type coalition might be new in Kenya, but I think it is worth trying because it is the only option.

Germany, among others, put constant pressure on Kenya to reach a deal. What would you say to Kenyans who believe that the whole process was foreign-driven?

That is not true. The agreement is a purely Kenyan affair. Kofi Annan, who mediated the talks, represented the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations.

But we consider ourselves as friends of Kenya. We are friends but not yes-men or women. If you are a good friend, you have to sometimes speak up, provided you use the right tone.

The role we played as friends of Kenya was that of giving advice and sharing experiences. It was not about imposing a decision. We did it in a tone of friendship.

After forming a grand coalition in Germany, how did you confront the issue of who plays the role of the opposition and the oversight institutions in parliament?

These were critical questions and people asked whether the country had given up on a multiparty system.

In Germany, two major parties came together, making 75 per cent of parliamentary strength, but we still have three smaller parties that form 25 per cent of parliament in the opposition. Of course, they have no capacity to block any legislation, so it is not a strong opposition.

In Kenya, you will have virtually no opposition. So, who could take the role of the opposition? I guess the press will have to play a crucial role in keeping the government in check. Secondly, public opinion will be very important and things must be done in a way that everybody knows what is going on. But most of all, Kenya could have some internal checks and balances within the coalition. This could be done through proper balancing of ministerial posts and their assistants, who could come from different parties.

But this experiment did not work so well in Germany because of the mistrust, and there was always a feeling that the deputy was being left in the dark or behind as far as information is concerned. That is why we later decided to have a party take over the entire ministry. However, I am not sure whether internal checks and balances can work for Kenya because in Germany, the parties are very strong while in Kenya, personalities matter more than party manifestos.

Did you have to entrench your grand coalition into the constitution?

No, because it was just a matter of how the government should organise itself. For Germany, we didnít need to put it into a constitutional framework because already, we have a constitution that says that a party that gets the majority in parliament automatically forms the government.

Did you have a situation where members of the coalition actively undermined each other?

No. Of course, you canít compare the German situation with the Kenyan one, where there was bloodshed. But with politicians, there are always those who are hardliners and who try to spoil everything. This is something that happens everywhere and it is part of democracy. It is important for Kenyan politicians to understand that this was the best deal for the country. However, it is important that people are allowed to speak their minds because you canít please 100 per cent of the population or party members.

What happens if one of the coalition members comes up with an expose on a scandal in the government, how do you deal with it?

In Germany, there are party leaders and party organs that deal with such things. If the majority of the party members take a decision in such a situation, then that is it. Individuals within a party might have their say and opinion, but the majority rules.

In Kenya, there may be differences between parties in relation to the African Union and East African Community. How do the parties of the German coalition deal with their different approaches to foreign policy, especially with regard to the European Union?

We have a saying in Germany that the foreign policy of leading parties is always 90 per cent identical. In our case, the most difficult issue was the incorporation of Turkey into the EU. The Christiansí party said they didnít want Turkey to be a member, while the Social Democrats did not have problems with it provided Turkey met the laid-down conditions. This was not solvable either at the level of experts or chiefs, but had to be solved between the two principals. But such cases are rare, cases where the parties have major differences in foreign policy.