Talking points: German elections

Some pointers for English readers.


Given the often terrible reporting of news from Germany in the anglophone blogosphere, here are some pointers for English readers on Schröder’s announcement of new elections in autumn.

1. Serial loser
Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD) are on a losing streak for quite a while now. Today’s was the seventh state (Länder) election since the beginning of 2004, and the SPD lost in Hamburg, Thuringia, Brandenburg, Saarland, Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and now North Rhine-Westphalia. Yep, that’s seven out of seven.

2. Länder matter
Because of the German federal political system, Länder (state) elections have an impact on the federal level, since the states are represented in the Bundesrat. There, the opposition led by the Christian Democrats (CDU) can veto federal legislation. Making matters worse for the SPD, the CDU now has almost a two-thirds majority in the Bundesrat — which translates into an absolute veto which the Bundestag coalition between SPD and Greens cannot override.

3. Now what?
Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and SPD chairman Franz Müntefering have announced their intention to hold early elections. However, German constitutional law doesn’t make that as easy as in many other countries. Article 68 of Germany’s Basic Laws allows the (otherwise relatively powerless) President to dissolve the Bundestag if the Chancellor loses a vote of confidence. However, Schröder’s coalition holds 306 of currently 603 seats, so Schröder’s troops would have to lose deliberately. Helmut Kohl did that in 1982, with early elections in early 1983 instead of late 1984. The Constitutional Court wasn’t too happy with this creative approach (full decision in German), but ultimately didn’t stop it (and will not do so this time), since all Bundestag parties agreed.

4. United they stand
The main opposition party CDU is a strange animal: It exists in all states except Bavaria where it has a fully-fledged sister party, Christian Social Union (CSU). Together, they form the parliamentary group CDU/CSU (the Union). Although Schröder’s government has had its problems for quite a while, it could frequently count on the CDU and CSU to fight each other. An especially bitter feud between CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel and CSU chairman Edmund Stoiber concerned the future of the health insurance. However, after his unsuccessful bid in 2002, Stoiber seems to have realized that he probably isn’t „mehrheitsfähig»: He will not be able to win a majority, especially in Northern Germany.

5. No time for rivalry
Unquestioned is not quite the word for Angela Merkel’s CDU leadership. The state minister-presidents are often pre-eminent figures in their respective parties and almost natural rivals when the candidacy for chancellorship is decided. In the polls, Merkel lags behind Lower Saxony’s minister-president Christian Wulff. However, Schröder’s new schedule leaves too little time for regicides. The same applies to the Union’s potential partner, the Free Democrats (FDP): At the last party conference, there was little enthusiasm for FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle. But, as Wag the Dog eloquently puts it, you never change horses in mid-stream.

6. What’s the issue?
It’s the unemployment rate, stupid. Schröder tried to reform the German social system and labour market; the notorious Hartz IV reform started in January 2005. There have been calls for such reforms for years, but the fiercest opposition to changing the social security system came from within the SPD, especially its traditionally left party base. Although the opposition parties — having been at the helm during the Kohl years — agreed with the reforms, they obviously didn’t lend Schröder their support, calling the reforms half-hearted and badly implemented. It’s rather unlikely that the German economy and labour market will pick up in time for the election.

7. Following up
If you want to read more about German politics in English, here are some sources I recommend. First of all, for news from Germany, there are headlines in English, taken from the English service of Deutsche Welle. As reliable and often matter-of-fact as it gets. Every Friday, there is F.A.Z. Weekly, an English version of the renowned, if conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine. The liberal news magazine Der Spiegel also offers an international edition online. (And BBC News has become much better at covering Germany as well.)

German political pundits› blogs? The blogosphere here not only is still relatively small, high quality political bloggers are few and far between. Maybe the election will change this a bit, but I’m afraid the commentators will have to help me on this one. (And no, this will remain a predominantly German language blog.)