Germany’s Third Way win

Schröder's narrow election victory came from an appeal to national sentiment, and caution.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

Gerhard Schröder’s ‘red-green’ coalition has been returned to power in a German election that was as much about the country’s standing in the world as it was about domestic problems like unemployment.

Unlike the last election in 1998, where the left got its first taste of power for nearly two decades, there is little excitement about another government in the hands of Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Joschka Fischer’s Green Party.

At the same time, the alliance of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), led by Edmund Stoiber, offered no hard-line Conservative opposition, meaning that no real issue of substance was debated. The close result reflects uncertainty in the minds of voters, in an election that spun off into issues like Iraq and the recent floods in Germany.

Schröder had trailed behind his rival Stoiber in an uninspiring election – until he broke ranks with US President George W Bush’s proposed coalition for an attack on Iraq. Promising that Germany will not ‘click its heels’ and do Washington’s bidding, the chancellor tapped into national pride.

Perhaps more than Schröder, it is his junior coalition partner foreign minister Joschka Fischer who is architect of the victory. With the SPD and the CDU/CSU neck-and-neck, both gaining 38.5 percent of the vote, it was the Greens’ enhanced 8.6 percent that won the day, though they remain a minority party.

Far from being an expression of pacifism, still less of solidarity with the people of the Middle East, the coalition’s jibes at Washington are part of a reassertion of German standing in the world. German nationalism has always been problematic – and was subordinated to the Atlantic alliance throughout the Cold War years of a divided Germany. Only with reunification has the country taken tentative steps towards a more forceful expression of national identity.

Key in the transition has been Joschka Fischer’s transformation of the Greens from pacifism to militarism, by winning them to the Kosovo war in 1999. Until then the Greens had appointed themselves keepers of the country’s tortured conscience, and had been largely marginal critics of German involvement in NATO.

By rallying to the Kosovo war, the Greens signified that the country could now take up arms abroad in good faith. They re-wrote German militarism in humanitarian terms, justified by a selfless campaign for victims of ethnic cleansing. Fischer has been calling for the creation of a common European diplomatic and military policy, putting Germany at odds with the USA.

Schröder’s opposition to joining the US coalition against Iraq has also been responsible for a rift in German-US relations. Although Edmund Stoiber attacked Schröder for jeopardising relations with America, he was forced to admit that he too would insist that action against Iraq should occur under the remit of the United Nations.

Stoiber’s late promise to expel 4000 alleged Islamic militants was an alternative appeal to German national sentiment, which was effective, but perhaps a bit too alarming for a cautious electorate.

The Greens also wrote the script for a country that is reconciled to slow growth and high unemployment. The underlying theme of caution is one that the Greens have revived for the coalition. Where Stoiber associated himself with the new technology boom in his native Bavaria, Schröder played upon fears of economic disorder.

Schröder dismissed critics of his eve-of-poll bail-out for MobilCom, saying that security was more important than economic dogma. Similarly, Schröder’s promise of cash for the victims of flooding saw him praised as a statesman who could promise security.

Just before the German elections, Sweden returned its Social Democratic government to power, reversing a trend of right-wing election victories across Europe.

Just as it seemed to be finished, Gerhard Schröder has revived the Third Way, only now with an additional anti-American twist.

James Heartfield is the author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, Perpetuity Press, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)); and Great Expectations: The Creative Industries in the New Economy, Design Agenda, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK)). He is also coauthor of Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age, Wiley-Academy, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website

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Topics Politics


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