Introduction: The Drama of 2005 and the Future of German Politics

By Langenbacher, Eric | German Politics and Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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Introduction: The Drama of 2005 and the Future of German Politics


Langenbacher, Eric, German Politics and Society


I recall a conversation from a while back with a colleague. He was disdainful of German politics, stating that they are ponderous, lackluster, even boring. He prefers to follow Italian politics because of the intrigue, emotion, and, most of all, the drama. Although forced to agree at the time that the contrast between the two countries could not be greater, I was also immediately reminded of the old (apocryphal) Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times."

My, how times have changed. German political life has witnessed some of the most dramatic events since at least the period of unification over fifteen years ago, and perhaps since the inception of the Federal Republic. It is this highly important and dramatic 2005 election to which this special issue of German Politics and Society is dedicated. The contributors analyze the results, but also locate current developments in the history and traditions of the Federal Republic. Just as important, they project trends and policies into the future. What will Angela Merkel and her grand coalition achieve? What will become of the German party system? What long-term structural changes are affecting German politics and policy-making?

Drama on the Left

As with the interpretation of any drama, one must first begin with a plot summary--an overview of the major, attention-grabbing developments. The narrative begins with a string of electoral defeats at the regional level that culminated in the Social Democrats (SPD) losing the state election in North Rhine Westphalia in late May 2005. This in itself was remarkable, seeing that the old Ruhrgebiet was a heartland of SPD support, ruled by the Social Democrats (at least as senior coalition partners) for nearly forty consecutive years. One of the reasons for this defeat was Chancellor Schroder's severe loss of support within his own party. Almost always fractious and divided between centrist moderates and trade union-oriented leftists, the party could not maintain solidarity and support in the face of the Red-Green government's reformist agenda and program (Agenda 2010, Hartz Reforms, etc.)--and one might add, in the face of the daunting and structural economic and social problems that the country has faced for at least a decade. Radicals led inside and outside of the government by Oscar Lafontaine and others were never enamored of the telegenic, "American" centrism that Schroder represented, but at least he could win elections for the team. The regional defeats in the Lander eroded even this tenuous reason for radical support. Schroder understood acutely the magnitude of the party's defeat in North Rhine Westphalia and elsewhere (and not just because of the legislative gridlock that this created in the opposition-controlled Bundesrat) and the dangers of the loss of internal support. He soon launched unprecedented political and constitutional machinations to salvage his power.

His first step was to bring down his own government by consciously staging and then losing a vote of confidence on July 1. Schroder engineered this as a last ditch attempt to maintain power, by forcing his party to declare support for him and by catching the opposition off-guard with the unexpected election that would have to follow. Of course, his official justification was that he lacked a mandate to govern and to implement his reforms and was calling the election early to obtain one. He added that Germany could not afford to lose another year or even two (until the next regularly scheduled Bundestag election) because of weak governance and gridlock. The constructive vote of non-confidence and other parliamentary norms were not supposed to allow for such a Weimaresque tactic. Yet, the Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) ruled on August 25 that it was constitutional and that a new election, already under way, was indeed necessary. Postwar Germany rarely had witnessed such expert maneuvering, nor such an adept political operative.

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