Germany: the government defeats itself

The crisis of Gerhard Schröder's administration seems to have woken democracy from its slumber.

Sabine Reul

Topics Politics

On 1 July, the German Bundestag delivered the expected thumbs down to chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Schröder himself had sought the vote of no confidence, after his governing Social Democrats (SPD) were defeated in the Northrhine-Westphalian state elections in May 2005. Unless the German president, Klaus Köhler, rules the whole operation out of order – which most regard as unlikely – the Bundestag will be dissolved and federal elections take place in September 2005, one year ahead of the scheduled end of the government’s term.

Schröder’s move has shaken German democracy from the torpor it fell under ever since his alliance of Social Democrats and Greens took office back in 1998. It has startled everyone, not least the supporters of the coalition in the Bundestag who were press-ganged by their leaders into voting their own government out of office and themselves out of parliament.

Although there have been three votes of confidence in the history of the Federal Republic, none was initiated by a chancellor for no other apparent purpose than to quit office. Schröder’s desire to bring down his government, although he commands a majority in the Bundestag that supported him loyally in every vote in the house, has no precedent. Those who point to the constitutionally and politically outlandish nature of the procedure may have a point. But they risk missing what really counts.

First: in arguing that his government lacks trust, Gerhard Schröder was speaking the plain truth. And second: unlike those who have been wringing their hands about voter disaffection for years, he acted on that insight. Whatever the chancellor’s personal motives may have been, in doing so he has opened an opportunity for democracy.

During the past seven years, real-life problems found no expression in German party politics, as both the governing SPD and Greens and the opposition Christian Democrats kept the lid firmly on debate. Issues such as welfare state reform or European enlargement were as likely to divide the parties internally as against each other. Nobody was inclined to disturb the machinery of consensus, by which Schröder passed his hugely unpopular welfare state reforms through Germany’s complex federal legislative process with the votes of the conservative opposition parties. This allowed these parties to feel important, though they had little new or different to say. And it kept political debate firmly out of public life. That this bureaucratic arrangement has now been suspended is all for the good.

The same applies to the Greens, who received a paltry seven per cent of the popular vote. Schröder rewarded their loyalty with an entirely unwarranted freedom to pursue pet projects like wind energy, consumer protection and biotechnology bans. Now the Greens also need to think again about where to find genuine support for their agenda – which is certainly no bad thing. It is also all for the good that left-wing and trade union opposition is now making itself heard in the western states of the republic, establishing the electoral alliance between the Alternative Labour and Social Justice (WASG) and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which is billed to make quite a running in the coming elections. The likelihood that they will offer compelling views on where we go from here is slim.

But what matters is that politics finally looks like returning to where it belongs: into the democratic arena. What comes of that will depend on how that moment of opportunity is used.

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Topics Politics


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