GERMANY: End of an Era

Article excerpt

Gerry Thompson comments on the outcome of the German elections and the demise of Helmut Kohl.

Helmut Kohl has so dominated German politics for the last sixteen years that the Bundestag elections on 27 September were seen by many as first and foremost a test of his ability to win a fifth four-year term as Chancellor. Accordingly the defeat of his coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) and their junior partner, the Free Democrat Party (FDP or Liberals), has been presented as a personal defeat for him. That is only partially true, however. It is most unlikely that any Christian Democrat politician could have won this election after the party had been in office for sixteen years and at a time of sluggish economy and high unemployment. German voters were looking for a younger, vigorous, and charismatic Chancellor to lead them into the new millennium and the Social Democrats (SPD) offered them such a candidate in the person of Gerhard Schroder, Premier of the federal state of Lower Saxony.

The election reversed the relative positions the CDU/CSU and the SPD had held following the 1994 election. The SPD increased its support from 36.4 per cent to 40.9 per cent of votes cast while the CDU/CSU share fell from 41.4 per cent to 35.2 per cent. The Greens and the Liberals each received fewer votes this year than in 1994 (6.7 per cent down from 7.3 per cent for the Greens and 6.2 per cent down from 6.9 per cent for the Liberals). The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), successor of the East German Communist Party, succeeded in increasing its vote from 4.4 per cent to 5.1 per cent. With 5.9 per cent of all votes going to parties that failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold, Schroder has been able to form a coalition government with the Greens with 345 seats in the 669-seat Bundestag, compared with 289 for the CDU/CSU and Liberals combined. The remaining 35 seats are held by the PDS. The two extreme right-wing parties between them secured only 3 per cent of the votes cast and gained no seats.

Strong feeling

The level of voter participation suggests that Germans felt more strongly about the issues this year than in 1994. Some 82.3 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls compared with 79 per cent then. The result showed also that Kohl had quite failed to keep pace with the changing mood of the electorate. His role in restoring German unity and his European vision were winning factors in 1994. But at the time of the 1998 election, opinion polls showed Germans' preoccupation with the level of unemployment (almost 11 per cent of the workforce) to be so pervasive that health, education, the environment, and European issues received scant attention. The Kohl administration's failure to reduce unemployment epitomised what many saw as a policy paralysis.

The massive desertion of the CDU by East German supporters was a particularly bitter pill for Kohl, the father of reunification. His government had ploughed more than DM1000 billion into the regeneration of the economy of the eastern `new states', much of it funded by the unpopular `solidarity surcharge'. Immense improvements have been made in the infrastructure of the new states that will ensure they attract more than their share of investment and jobs in the future. But easterners had been encouraged, not least by Kohl himself, to expect a more rapid economic dividend. CDU candidates in the east paid the price for the prevailing disappointment and impatience.

Schroder now has to realise the hopes of the German people that he can lead the nation in a new direction, increase economic growth and create new jobs. At the same time they expect him to improve upon Germany's already comprehensive social welfare system. It will be a stunning achievement, especially in the present international economic climate, if Schroder is able to realise both the economic and the social aspirations of Germans. …