Monday, September 25, 2017

The other type of 'winner'

After the result of the German federal election became clear last night, I posted a couple of tweets about the BBC's misleading headline reporting of the subject.

"My standard complaint about BBC reporting of PR elections - you don't 'win' with 33% of the vote. Who governs is decided by negotiation."

"BBC on Merkel with 33% of the vote: 're-elected, wins'. BBC on SNP with 37% of the vote: 'a baaaad night for the SNP, independence is dead'."

Both tweets came in for some strong criticisms, so I'm going to respond here, free from the constraints of 140 characters.  The objection to the second tweet was basically that I was making a bogus comparison, because the two electoral systems are different.  (In fact one person got a bit hysterical and said something along the lines of "we gotta be better than these bull**** comparisons!")  In reality, of course, the difference between proportional representation and first-past-the-post makes the basic point more telling, not less so.  In Germany, the CDU and CSU not only got roughly one-third of the votes, but proportional representation also ensured that translated into roughly one-third of the seats.  Whereas in Scotland in June, the SNP received 37% of the votes, and first-past-the-post converted that into nearly 60% of the seats.  By any measure, then, the SNP's performance was superior to Angela Merkel's, and there is no excuse for failing to report the SNP's result as a "win" if that's what you're going to do for Merkel.

On the first tweet, I got into an abbreviated repeat of an argument I had  with a German chap last year who pointed out to me after a regional election that the German media also invariably refer to this sort of result as a "win" (and, indeed, that the BBC's reporting of German elections seems to take its cue directly from that).  The original discussion went round in circles on the point of whether the German phrase "klarer sieg" means exactly the same thing as "clear victory" in English, or whether there might be a subtle difference that is being lost in translation.  Not being a German speaker I don't know the answer to that question, but put it this way - if the two phrases do have an absolutely identical meaning, the German media are being just as irresponsible as the BBC.  It's reminiscent of what the CBC did in Canada about ten years ago when on election night they "projected a Conservative minority government", which is not something that can even be projected because a minority government is not an election outcome.  The actual result of the election was a parliament of minorities, which is something that might produce a minority government, but might just as easily produce a coalition government which won't necessarily be led by the largest single party.  And yet when the latter scenario started to unfold in Canada, the public thought something was badly amiss because they had already been told that the "result of the election" was entirely different.

The German public are much more used to coalition permutations and are thus unlikely to react in the same way, but nevertheless as a matter of principle it's just wrong to describe something as a "win" when it's nothing of the sort.  The German who took me to task on Twitter made the point that there is no realistic way that Merkel isn't going to form a government, which boosts her right to be described as the "winner".  But, again, that fact has got nothing to do with the election result in and of itself - arithmetically, an SPD-led government excluding the CDU is viable and could even have a huge majority.  It won't happen, but that's because of decisions made by politicians, not by voters in the ballot box.  It's also worth pointing out that German media seem inclined to declare a "winner" even when there is genuine doubt over whether that winner will lead the government.

In an attempt to rescue his argument, the German chap prayed in aid a dictionary definition of "win" in English as meaning "do better than others".  But you only have to think of some hypothetical examples to see how that definition doesn't tally up with how the word is actually used in real life.  If you had a 110 metre hurdle race in which all the athletes hit the hurdles and failed to finish, there would still be one athlete who did "better than the others".  But is he "the winner"?  Of course not.

By the way, just by coincidence, when the SNP first took office in 2007, they did it on the basis of 33% of the vote - exactly the same as Merkel received last night.  If memory serves me right, the BBC did not declare the SNP as the "winners" or say they had been "elected to government".  Instead, it was very carefully reported that the SNP had "broken through, and replaced Labour as the biggest party".

67 comments:

  1. "SNP" and "winners " are two words you will never hear in conjunction coming from any part of the BBC !

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  2. Nat sis want EU powers devolved back to Holyrood. Seems the Nat sis have now given in to Brexit. And this is an admission that the EU was ruling Scotland.

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    1. Stench of this.

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    2. Labour won the most seats at the last GE ask anyone

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    3. Aye those Britnatsis are the worst type though I think you could be one of them?

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    4. Do you never get fed up of being a Total Twat?

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  3. Merkel will have her place in history as the woman who allowed Islamic Fascists into Germany whilst opposing Fascism...!..She has the blood of Germans on her hands...and others... The terrorists she allowed in are still around...

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    1. How can I be racist I vote labour and only hate Irish catholics.

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    2. And germans scots and women

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    3. J. R. Tomlin must be a thick as shit extreme leftie. A non observant thicko.

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    4. State of this racist.

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    5. Unlike you jocks we know how to win against the krauts 18, 45 and 66 3-0 England. Come on England, we're gonna score one more than you....England!

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    6. You can add June 2016 to that.

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    7. In 1966 England played WEST Germany so only "beat" a half country OK.

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    8. Indeed if steroid drug taking East Germans had been part of the team then Scots would have been wetting themselves as they have such an affinity with Germany so much so they want to sell Scotland out to them.

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    9. Oh dear. It slipped its leash again...

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  4. Being said German, let me clarify a few points. I know, I won't convince you, this is more for the other readers.

    (1) Human language isn't precise like maths. Many words have many related, but different meanings, depending on the context. Therefore it's ok to call someone a winner in FPTP if and only if he got an absolute majority of seats, but to call someone a winner in a proportional context, who has "only" secured more votes then everyone else and can be expected to lead a coalition government. Yes, these are different things, but it's different voting systems, so it can't be the same anyway.

    (2) The words "winner" or "win" (or their German translations) *are* used in Germany in exactly these situations. By the media and by normal people. "You're using the wrong word" leads to nothing and will be laughed at by linguists.

    (3) The German public knows what to make out of this concept of "winner". Your Canadian example is not applicable here, since half the evening on election day German media is busy explaning all possible (thinkable) options. Everyone understands the implications.

    (4) There are scores of parties that failed to finish at the election, i.e. failed the 5% threshold. If *all* parties failed that, we might have a constitutional crisis (in reality it's a bit more complex), but I'm sure nobody would declare a winner. But in your hurdles example, if someone finishes in ten times the time of the current world record, he's still a winner, as long as he is faster than anyone else in this race. This is a legitimate use of the word "winner".

    (5) All that said, I fully agree that reporting should be consistent. The SNP results mentioned in your post should have been reported as win.

    JFTR: Where I'm talking about the public or everyone, I don't mean *literally* everyone, but everyone in Germany with at least half an interest in politics. I know that's not really everyone.

    Jan Niklas

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    1. Interesting explanation, Jan. Thanks. The varying political systems and the variance in how they are covered at home can make understanding difficult.

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    2. I agree with your first basic point but not the second. In any competition the person/entity that secures the tangible prize for victory in this case the capacity to form/lead a government must be regarded as the winner.
      The SNP categorically did not 'win', in absolute terms, the 2017 UK General election. They secured 35 of the 650 available seats (circa 5%) and did not gain the capacity to lead/form a government. They did not even gain arguably the most relevant Scottish prize on offer, the capability to appoint the Secretary of State for Scotland.
      The 2017 election was a UK wide election, and to confine your frame of reference to Scotland is akin to, using the athletics analogy, declaring the highest placed Scottish finisher the Gold/Silver/Bronze medal winner or winner in Scotland, of a World/European/UK championships final in which there are three Scottish athletes which finish 4th, 5th and 6th, a great result no doubt but not one in which they would be regarded as winners.
      The SNP themselves don't even totally consider Westminster as a Scotland only election, as Alex Salmond conceded, they were considering fielding candidates in the north of England in 2015 and produced a manifesto clearly aimed at doing a deal with Labour to hold influence at Westminster.
      The SNP have used the term 'win' a Westminster election which is fine because people would understand their perspective and what they mean. It's far from an absolute term however that must be universally accepted and adhered to because people would equally understand the term largest party in Scotland without explicitly stating a victory which is also technically more accurate.
      Its understood the perspective of the SNP is more Scotland centric so the term 'win' is not challenged but maybe used differently than by other commentators. Different terms may be used, understood and accepted in this case, because Westminster is not a Scotland only election and the context, in this case the UK/Scotland centric frame of reference of perspective is subjective.

      In reference to Germany, using a semantic argument to make a substantive point of difference is futile across different nations, cultures, languages, traditions and conventions. Language is a form of communication and its meaning must always be placed within the environment and context it is used. If the German people understand the term, its intended form and meaning, it's utterly pointless and inane for someone from the UK disputing its use. The BBC reporting in the same format as the German media is consistent to me with respecting German traditions and conventions and arguably more important than any 'phoney' standardisation. `
      Furthermore, notwithstanding the differences, the result of the CSU in Bavaria imo would be a better comparator for the 2017 SNP result in Scotland than the German-wide result irrespective of the terminology used. Albeit being a sister party of the CDU, the party was the dominant party standing in a single region/jurisdiction facing a significant challenge.

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    3. Thanks, Jan. But who "owns" the language. Politicians and media try to "capture" the language and impose their own meanings on words and phrases and thereby control the discourse. "TINA" (there is no alternative - Thatcher); "take back control" (Brexiteers) are obvious examples.

      But so is "win". It's part of the infantilisation of language and thought wrought by politicos and their salivating media slaves, who think the public are too simple to understand complex sentences like: Mrs Merkel's party polled 33% and is likely to head a coalition government, provided.....etc etc. But that wouldn't make a lazy headline: Merkel Wins!!

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    4. Well the people own the language. But I don't see any reason to believe that this usage of "win" was a framing exercise. Take Germany's biggest online magazine:

      http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/germany-angela-merkel-s-fourth-term-comes-at-high-price-a-1169632.html

      They're calling it a "win", but not in that "lazy headline" way. And that's representative of the media coverage.

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    5. "In any competition the person/entity that secures the tangible prize for victory in this case the capacity to form/lead a government must be regarded as the winner."

      But the problem here (and what negates your point) is that Merkel is not going to lead the government as a direct result of the election outcome. One-third of seats isn't enough - nowhere near enough. Even in combination with her most natural coalition partner she doesn't have a majority. She'll remain as Chancellor as a result of the unwillingness of other parties to work together. Whatever it was she "won", it wasn't the election.

      Let me ask you a question. In the UK, Labour formed a government after the 1923 election in spite of finishing second. Would you seriously argue that Labour "won" the 1923 election...by finishing second?! It's self-evident nonsense.

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    6. "The SNP categorically did not 'win', in absolute terms, the 2017 UK General election."

      But they categorically DID win, in absolute terms, the 2017 election in Scotland. They only stand in Scotland, so that's the only measure we're interested in. ("We" meaning SNP members and supporters.) By your standard, the SNP didn't win the 2015 election in spite of taking 56 out of 59 seats, which is clearly ludicrous.

      If the SNP ever considered standing in the north of England, that's news to me. That doesn't really have the ring of truth about it.

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    7. "In reference to Germany, using a semantic argument to make a substantive point of difference is futile across different nations, cultures, languages, traditions and conventions."

      I don't think you read the blogpost with enough care. I made clear I was only criticising German media *if* the phrase "klarer sieg" has an identical meaning to "clear victory". If it means something subtly different there's no issue - but that doesn't get the BBC off the hook for using lazy translations of German headlines, and ignoring the fact that what they're saying in English isn't accurate.

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    8. You're not referring to the use of 'win' by the SNP
      "so that's the only measure we're interested in. ("We" meaning SNP members and supporters.)"
      which was clearly stated as acceptable in the post, you're referring to it as used (or not used) by the BBC which should obviously be more objective with its terminology it's not the SNPBC.
      Alex Salmond appeared on various media outlets following the 2015 election stating the SNP were considering standing candidates in the north of England but had insufficient time to implement the plan, if you don't believe me ask him.

      "But the problem here (and what negates your point) Merkel is not going to lead the government as a direct result of the election outcome."
      You're implying a break in the chain of causation from the election to the forming of a government when none exists. If the capacity to form a government does not accrue due to the election and consequent negotiations then what is it a result of. There would need to be an intervening event to break the chain which, on the assumption Merkel forms a government i.e. gains the tangible prize for victory, there is none.

      "I was only criticising German media *if* the phrase "klarer sieg" has an identical meaning to "clear victory". If it means something subtly different there's no issue."

      The linguistic translation is not the issue, if the German people interpret the result of the election in the same manner as the German media and that is reported by the BBC, the linguistics are irrelevant, that is the point being made. Nations used to coalitions may have very different expectation levels when it comes to election outcomes and the notion of clear victory in Germany maybe very different to the UK.
      If the essence of what is understood and perceived by the German people and media is conveyed effectively in English by the BBC the reporting is accurate.

      "Let me ask you a question. In the UK, Labour formed a government after the 1923 election in spite of finishing second. Would you seriously argue that Labour "won" the 1923 election...by finishing second?! It's self-evident nonsense."

      I'm too young to remember 1923, but if Labour and the SNP collectively had deposed David Cameron in 2015 and formed a government with other informal agreements despite having marginally fewer seats and votes how would they not have won the election. The sight of David Cameron leaving Downing street and resigning as Prime Minister to be replaced by a Labour/SNP administration while claiming victory would be laughable and self evident nonsense.

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    9. "Alex Salmond appeared on various media outlets following the 2015 election stating the SNP were considering standing candidates in the north of England but had insufficient time to implement the plan, if you don't believe me ask him."

      Opportunities to speak in person with the former First Minister are not that common, so I've got a much better idea - why don't you simply supply a link? If he said it in "various media outlets" it should be fairly straightforward for you to do.

      "You're implying a break in the chain of causation from the election to the forming of a government when none exists. If the capacity to form a government does not accrue due to the election...then what is it a result of."

      I've already explained that point twice. I'm happy to do so for a third time but not a fourth. There is a "break in the chain of causation" as you put it because the election result makes a government excluding the CDU very easily viable. Merkel owes her continued position as Chancellor not to the election result but to the unwillingness of other parties to form a government together.

      (For obvious reasons I skipped the words in which you bizarrely sabotaged your own argument!)

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    10. Your German system is to protect the interests of the establishment, landowners and private landlords who many I believe bought up land and built hovels at high rents for the peasants after World War 2. Members of the communist party could not be school teachers and the Adolf word is used when some of the masses get upset with liberal policies that benefit the rich.

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    11. You wouldn't have to talk to the former First Minister in person I'm sure this is widely known within the SNP.

      A chain of causation is a series of events that have occurred or will occur, it's not a plethora of possibilities or viable or unviable alternatives that may or may not happen at any point in time. For example, if the other parties had performed much better in the election they may have well been much more willing to form a coalition without the CDU, it's inconceivable neglecting to do this is an act of benevolence much more an acceptance of the political realities of the situation. This perspective is a directly caused by the election outcome. The chain of causation is therefore not broken because the events that ensue following the election occur due to the election result. The political and constitutional realities that effect the elected government are the election result.

      Your again also dismissing context, the German people and German media know or fundamentally and sincerely believe that the CDU/CSU led by Merkel will form the government.

      I doubt anyone has any idea (including yourself) of what these obvious reasons are, bizarre, sabotage, it's just evidently overly pugnacious rhetoric without merit, premise or explanation to support it. More than happy to engage in polite discourse.

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    12. "You wouldn't have to talk to the former First Minister in person I'm sure this is widely known within the SNP."

      I'm in the SNP and have never heard they were planning to stand candidates in England.

      This was stated several times in the media, you say? And yet you can't find a link?

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  5. What is surely not in doubt is the dire reporting by the bbc!

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    1. The BBC seem particularly pleased about the AfD willing seats.

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    2. But of course you are, dear Britnat si...

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  6. By the way, There are also seats in the Bundestag that are distributed by fptp. Of These, cdu/csu won 231 Out of 299, or 77%.

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    1. True, but the CDU/CSU get less list seats in compensation. And this gets so far that the total number of seats will be increased to be able to fully compensate such that in the end the composition of the Bundestag fully mirrors the list vote.

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    2. "Of These, cdu/csu won 231 Out of 299, or 77%."

      So what? The whole purpose of list seats in AMS is to correct for any imbalance in the constituency section.

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    3. Sure. I'm Not even trying to make a Point here. I Just think it's a fact Wörth noting in this context.

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  7. I don't think there can be any disputing that the CDU won most votes in the recent election in Germany and nor do I think there is any dispute that the SNP won most seats in Scotland at the GE.

    The issues come in when people who know better start to try and claim otherwise by grouping other parties together to say the party that got the most votes somehow lost. The others didn't stand as one party, therefore they did not win instead. To argue otherwise is utter nonsense.

    In the case of the German election, I think the issue is that winning most votes does not mean you win power. It looks likely the CDU will form the government, but they wouldn't feel much like 'winners' if the others ganged up to deny them (going too deeply into the rights and wrongs of this would stray into N Robinson 'coalition of the losers' territory, so I will only say that any government which can be put together under any current electoral rules is 'fair').

    But in strict absolutist vote number terms, the CDU clearly won on Sunday, and the SNP won in June. Electoral outcomes are, however, often due to the vagaries of the system and I think James K is basically cautioning against misunderstanding that (which too many people, wilfully or otherwise, often do).

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  8. Comparing coverage of the 2007 Scottish election with the 2017 German election is a bit unfair, because the 2007 Scottish election was much closer. Labour finished with 1-2 points of the SNP, and it wasn't fully clear until teatime on the following day that the SNP had won most seats.

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    1. The BBC quote I used ("the SNP breaks through, and replaces Labour as the biggest party") is from the Ten O'Clock News on the Friday, some four hours after it had become clear that the SNP had "won".

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    2. Yes, but that was a situation where an incumbent party was (very narrowly) defeated, whereas the CDU/CSU appears to have been re-elected.

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    3. Now you're doing it. "Re-elected" is a meaningless concept when you've only won a third of the seats.

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  9. There are 73 idle UK MEP'S on the gravy train plus their office flunkies all bleeding the taxpayer. It would be interesting to know how much they wil pocket in pensions as opposed to hard working British taxpayers who get the bullet.

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  10. Most of the coverage especially BBC coverage relates to Merkel being extremely diminished as a result of this election. It's the CDUs worst results in post war politics she's only clung on because the SPD also suffered a big reverse. I don't think anyone has claimed the idea of Scottish independence is dead merely that the June result showed a hefty shift in favour of parties opposed to another Indyref in the near future, a far worse than anticipated reverse of the SNP with a loss of big and important names for the party. Either the SNP listen to the voters or they don't,both options carry consequences for future elections.

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    1. "I don't think anyone has claimed the idea of Scottish independence is dead..." That is exactly what people have claims. Considering recent polls showing support either steady or up (depending on the poll), that argument as well as yours is bunkum. Hopefully the SNP will listen to the voters and have a referendum sooner rather than later.

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    2. Sooòooner please and be trashed by the Unionist voter. And then you will say it wisnae ferr Nat si Bhoy. Just love you English haters!

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    3. She needs a meat injection erection not an election.

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  11. Herman Boring tae J. R. TomlinSeptember 27, 2017 at 1:05 AM

    Achtung Herr J. R. Tomlin ve are soo sorry for bombing Clydebank and killing soo many poor jocks in their tenements. But it was a mistake ve were trying to kill Geordies and Scousers. Oor bombers went astray. Ve have a commin interest ve hate the English and the Yids.

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    1. That you, troll?
      Got to be. Most impersonators avoid the blatant racism...

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    2. Neine its me Rudolf Hess the man your home guard arrested on Eaglesham Moor. I flew all the way from the Reich to engage with your Nat si leadership to fight the common enemy, the English and Jews. I ended up dain life in Spandau Nick because of you lot. Now you want tae haun yerselves over tae Angela and the Fourth Reich. Feldwebel Shultz says you jockos are a bunch of dolts.

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    3. You were born through parthenogenesis, you imbecile.

      Dain - ha! ha! ha!, hee!, hee!, hee!, ho!, ho!. You moronic huck.

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    4. Apparantly it is because I am left handed according to the experts.

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  12. Anon, just looked up that word you have chosen. I could actually be a virgin birth!

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    1. Virgin on, the ridiculous.

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    2. Aye, yurr faithurr's Goad. Help iz.

      Yurr ah, richt clone.

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  13. Susan ache en is the heid of the Glesga Nat si cooncil. Whit an embarrassment tae ma great wee historical toon. Who wid hiv thought the Glesga people wid hiv voted fur that fing.

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    1. My boyfriend likes it when I wear my Nat sis uniform he reckons I look sexy

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    2. It's really kinky when our carers are in the same room with their blindfolds on.

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  14. Jeremy Jeremy JeremySeptember 28, 2017 at 10:44 AM

    Labour are back we have the Momentum. No alliance with the extreme right wing Tartan Tories.

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    1. You'd sell your own grandmother to the Tories...

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    2. You are welcome to dig them up nat si bhoy.

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  15. I didn't see the original argument you had with Jan Niklas, so let me just stick to this post. The media in Germany declares as an overall winner of the election first of all the party that took the most votes out of all parties contesting the election. (For the purpose of absolute clarity, as the Bavarian CSU does not stand in the rest of Germany and their sister party, the CDU, does not stand in Bavaria, their votes are always counted together as "Die Union".)

    Germans are very much used to PR and so we understand that the winner of an election is not necessarily forming the next government. That's why media as well as population immediately start discussing all possible permutations of coalitions. The reason why it is assumed and expected (but not seen as a completely foregone conclusion) that Merkel has won a forth term is because

    1. she is the leader of the biggest party

    2. the FDP has been in government for even more years than the Union. They faced an existential crisis after being completely wiped out in 2013. They will prioritise working with the Union, especially since the SPD is currently undergoing a crisis of its own and has already declared they want to lick their wounds in the opposition rather than as junior partner.

    3. The Greens have been in coalition with the CDU before, the first time in 2008, in successful regional governments. They were even the junior partner in a so-called Jamaikakoalition with the Union and the FDP, so all three parties know they can make this work.

    In other words, the expectation that Merkel will lead the next government is a reasonable one, even if it takes a while to sort out who gets what perk of government.

    But this potential outcome of the election, while also "a victory" in German parlance, is always understood as exactly that by all Germans and the media - the potential outcome.

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