A New Start and "Renewal" for Germany? Policies and Politics of the Red-Green Government, 1998-2002
Reutter, Werner, German Politics and Society
According to Jurgen Habermas, the federal election in 1998 finally "sealed" the democratic foundation of Germany and confirmed that this country belonged to the "west." (1) Until then, the day of judgment had left the "judges" in Germany--that is, the voters--with only limited influence in coalition building and the formation of each government. (2) Between 1949 and 1998 no federal government has totally been unsettled by elections. Changes in government were due to changes in coalitions, thus based on decisions by the parties rather than on the electorate. Insofar as the landslide victory of the Social Democratic Party and the Alliance '90/Greens in the 1998 election not only reflected important changes in the party system, but it also could mean that the German electorate is going to play a more influential role in the future.
Even though Habermas showed some skepticism as far as the program of the red-green coalition was concerned, (3) there were several indications that fueled expectations and hopes for change and "A New Start and Renewal" to quote the title of the coalition agreement. (4) More important than this sort of political lyricism was that this was the first federal government in which the Greens and the SPD jointly participated. In the election campaign the two parties had claimed that they would "modernize" the society and the economy albeit it remained unclear what this "modernization" indeed meant. In addition, Gerhard Schroder was the first chancellor who received all votes of the members of the coalition parties in the Bundestag as well as seven votes from the opposition. (5) When taking office the red-green coalition also had a majority in the Bundesrat. In October of 1998 the SPD and the Greens formed nine state governments and had thirty-eight seats in the Bundesrat, three more than necessary for a majority in the second chamber. (6) On the whole, it looked as if the new coalition had received a clear mandate to overcome the notorious Reformstau of the Kohl era, (7) and in addition the political and institutional preconditions allowed overdue structural reforms and policy changes.
However, at the end of the term many claimed that the red-green government had not lived up to the expectations that were prevalent in the fall of 1998. (8) The overall impression before and after the 2002 election was that the coalition had effected only moderate policy changes given that in some areas (such as economic policy, social welfare, and health care) continuity was stronger than in others (foreign policy and immigration). But the Schroder government has neither been able to embark on structural reforms nor to initiate changes brought about in other European governments in the 1980s and nineties. (9) Insofar as the red-green government seems to confirm the predominant view that the German political system allows at best incremental change and that the Reformstau was due to the institutional structure of the German polity rather than to the program of the last government.
It goes without saying that the institutional structure of the German polity was and is an important reason for the lack of reforms everybody seems to complain about in Germany for quite some time. The high number of veto-players (10) whose consent is necessary in order to embark on structural reforms makes it very risky and difficult to venture "bold policy change. (11) However, to explain the shortcomings of the red-green government by exclusively pointing to the institutional structure has two flaws: it neglects the fact that the first Schroder cabinet initiated some far-reaching changes between 1998 and 2002 and it plays down the relevance of political programs. Hence, I will argue in this paper that the red-green government can at best partly blame the institutional features of the German polity for its policy failures. Rather, it was the logic of coalition government, party competition as well as the lack of a clear agenda in a number of most important policy areas that defined the performance of the first red-green government. …