Special Reports

Germany: Elections of 2005 Friday, December 14, 2007

Election 2005

In May 2005, on the heels of a defeat in North Rhone-Westphalia - a Social Democratic (SDP) stronghold for 39 years -- Chancellor Schroeder said he wanted to call for elections a year ahead of schedule.  Acknowledging the political complications of losing in an area where his Social Democrats have traditionally dominated, Schroeder said, "The bitter result... jeopardizes the political basis for the continuation of our task." The main issues facing Schroeder and his government centered around the high level of unemployment and overall performance of the German economy. The conservative opposition Christian Democrats had seized upon these factors to win in North Rhone-Westphalia and were expected to use the same formula of economic dissatisfaction to win nationally.

With the Social Democrats lagging behind in national polls, with a diminished presence in the upper house of parliament, and with pressure mounting against his administration, Schroeder seemingly made the political calculation to call for early elections as a way of soliciting support, or a mandate of sorts, for his "Agenda 2010" reform program.  Indeed, the German Chancellor noted that his reform package had already seen positive results, however, he could only continue with the backing of the German people.

By July 2005,  German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder deliberately lost a confidence vote and then sought the support of the president in calling for fresh elections. In late July 2005, German President Horst Koehler agreed to dissolve parliament in anticipation of early elections.  Koehler's decision to dissolve parliament could have been overturned by the German courts, if it had determined that an early election contravened against the constitution.  In Germany, early elections have been rare. But with no such legal interventions to deal with, new elections were expected to be held in September 2005.  According to the opinion polls at the time, the German public was not keen on the governance of Schroeder and the ruling Social Democrats.  For his part, the German Chancellor had been unable to move forward with many of his reforms, which were ensconced within his "Agenda 2010" program.  As such, the opposition Christian Democrats, led by Angela Merkel, were believed to be poised for victory.

Germans were then set to go to the polls for parliamentary elections scheduled for Sept.18, 2005.  Leading up to election day, the platforms of the two main parties highlighted two divergent approaches to the aforementioned problems of high unemployment and poor economic performance.  In these regards,  Merkel's election  campaign concentrated its attacks on Germany's high unemployment rate under Schroeder's government. As well, Merkel suggested that Schroeder's government has clandestine  plans for welfare cuts, aimed at  filling gaps in public finances.  Meanwhile, Schroeder argued that Merkel's candidate for Finance Minister, economics professor Paul Kirchhof, would carry out  dangerous fiscal experiments.  Indeed, Schroeder warned that Kirchhof's concept of a  flat 25 percent rate of income tax would make "guinea pigs" of the German people, in order to advance an economic theory.  He also predicted  social conflict as a result.  But the Christian Democrats have said that the flat tax would not be part of their policy.  Instead, they have said that they will cut income tax rates for most households.

Just prior to the election,  the lower chamber of the German parliament or "Bundestag" was composed of members as follows:

1. Social Democrats (SPD): 249
2. Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU): 247
3. Alliance '90/Greens: 55
4. Free Democrats (FDP): 47
5. Others: 3
6. Unfilled seats: 2

Two days ahead of the election, Merkel's advantage over Schroeder had minimized substantially.  As was the case in 2002 when foreign policy issues may have played some role in tempering dissatisfaction with economic concerns, and perhaps spurred by Schroeder's economic arguments, on the eve of the election, the two parties were involved in a highly competitive race to the finish.  Indeed, the center-right coalition led by Merkel was running only marginally ahead of the Schroeder's Social Democrats.  A poll by Forsa for RTL television showed that support for Merkel's Christian Democrats,  their main allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the other member of their coalition, the liberal Free Democrat (FDP), were commanding 48 percent to 51 percent of the votes of those being polled. Meanwhile, the combined support for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats, the Green alliance, as well as the new Left Party, was indicated to be between 45 percent and 49 percent. Another poll by Allensbach for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung showed  Merkel's coalition with 49.5 percent of the vote, and the others with 48 percent.  While the news was slightly more comforting for Merkel's alliance, the polling data also showed that up to a full quarter of prospective voters remained undecided.  Some experts contributed the degree of uncertainty to the presence of the Left Party.  As a result, it was difficult to determine how the election would actually turn out.  Nevertheless, it was believed that 49 percent of the votes cast would be sufficient to secure a parliamentary majority. Exit polls were to published immediately after  the close of voting on Sept. 18, 2005.

In fact, exit polls on election day showed a close race, in keeping with the polls days ahead of actual voting.  Early returns suggested that Merkel had less than a 1 percent lead over Schroeder.  Indeed, Merkel and the Christian Democrats appeared to have 35.2 percent of the votes cast while Schroeder's Social Democrats appeared to have secured 34.3 percent of the votes cast.  The pro-business Free Democrats took 9.8 percent of the vote; the Left Party, made up disgruntled ex-Social Democrats, communists and other leftists, took 8.7 percent of the vote; and the Greens, led by Schroeder's Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer,  took 8.1 percent of the vote. In the “Bundestag” (parliamentary body), it appeared that  Merkel and the Christian Democrats would have 225 seats; Schroeder's Social Democrats  would have 222 seats; Merkel's allies, the Free Democrats, would have 61 seats; the Left Party, would have 54 seats; and Schroeder's allies, the Greens, would have 51 seats.
With 302 seats needed for a ruling majority, neither of the two main parties, the Christian Democrats nor the Social Democrats, had been able to generate a majority on its own,  thus necessitating the formation of a ruling coalition with other parties. Going into the election, the ruling coalition had been the "red-green" coalition of Schroeder's Social Democrats with Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer's Greens. Should Merkel prevail, the Christian Democrats' reliable allies would be the Free Democrats in a "black-yellow" coalition.  In both cases though, a third ally would be needed in order to command a majority and form a government.

Coalition possibilities included the following:

1. Schroeder could try to hold on to his Chancellorship by including the Left Party into his existing coalition for a new "red-red-green" coalition made up of the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Greens. Although all parties of the triad could be classified as left of center in political orientation, the roots of the Left Party pose a problem for Schroeder.  The Left Party emerged from the former communist party, which had strength  in Eastern Germany, along with dissidents of the Social Democrats.  Within the Left Party is Schroeder's own former finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine, who has not enjoyed the best of relations with Schroeder.  As such, these personal antagonisms would have to be put aside in order to form a "red-red-green" coalition.

2. The  "traffic light" option, made up of "red-green-yellow" (Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats) offered another possibility, albeit of the unlikely variety.  This is because the presence of the two smaller parties -- Greens and Free Democrats -- together in the same government might be unstable. First, they have quite divergent goals -- the Greens have a left-leaning ecologist agenda while the Free Democrats are pro-business and libertarian.   Second, both must compete for the five percent vote threshold nationwide in order to remain in parliament.  As such, they are likely to approach a coalition with much suspicion about the long-term implications for their respective parties. Third, the Free Democrats have even gone so far as to say that they would not enter a coalition with the Greens.  Of course, they might well change their minds about this pronouncement; however, its actual utterance means that a coalition involving both "green" and "yellow" is unlikely to occur.

3. The "black-yellow-green" coalition, made up of Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens (also sometimes called the "Jamaica" option due to the colors of the Jamaican flag) was also touted as a possibility.  But as with the previous option, the combination of Greens and Free Democrats might likewise be unstable due to divergent goals, competitive inclinations on the national stage, and expressed unwillingness by the Free Democrats to be in a coalition with the Greens.

4.  The "grand coalition" option,  made up of both of the two main parties -- Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, was being put forth as a strong option, given the closeness of the outcome of the voting.   Even before the actual election, the notion of a grand coalition had been evoked as a way to bring together Germany's divided  political landscape.  But  as with the other coalition options mentioned here, the strong philosophical differences in the two camps could lead to weak governance, where little work could actually be advanced.

5. The fifth option was that no coalition government could be formed, resulting in the call for new elections  before long. The actual outcome of such an election is unknown at this time, however, one assumes that whereas Schroeder may be benefiting from momentum right now, Merkel's disappointing finish may present her with leadership challenges within her own party.

6. A final possibility involved the formation of a majority through coalition. Instead, Merkel could try to rule with a minority government.  Such a possibility would be the most unstable of all the options presented here.  Without majority parliamentary support, such a government could not hope to prevail for the long term.
Of all the possibilities, the "grand coalition" was considered the most feasible.  But this option was  not regarded to be likely if Merkel got the Chancellery.  In fact, Schroeder said he was open to the notion of a "grand coalition," only if he retained his position as Chancellor.

For her part, Merkel insisted that she had a "clear mandate" to become Germany's first female Chancellor.   Schroeder, however, said that the support in parliament was not likely to go in the direction of a Chancellery for Merkel.  This meant that Merkel could attempt to rule by way of a minority government.  Such a government was a strong possibility, however, it would exist with its own set of serious problems.  First, without strong parliamentary support, Merkel would be stalled from advancing her own conservative agenda.  Second, her minority government -- by its very nature -- would be woefully short-lived, and would likely fall in short order, thus  precipitating new elections.

For his part, despite losing seats in the “Bundestag,” Schroeder reacted to  the election results with great zeal. For weeks ahead of the election, Merkel's Christian Democrats had a 20 percentage point lead, making it seem inevitable that  Germany would  have its first female Chancellor.  Schroeder, however, showed himself to be a formidable politician and essentially spent a month eroding Merkel's commanding lead to almost nothing. His surprisingly strong finish has, essentially, given him a new lease on political life.  In fact, buoyed by this massive comeback, his post-election remarks included a disparagement of Merkel's claims of having a mandate.  In this regard, he said, "I do not understand how the [Christian Democratic] Union, which started off so confidently and arrogantly, takes a claim to political leadership from a disastrous election result. The result today shows that the country will have Gerhard Schroeder as chancellor."

A week later, negotiations were ongoing in the attempt to form a government. As many talks broke down, speculation rose about the possibility of building a "grand coalition" between Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU)  and  Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SDP).   Although Merkel and  Schroeder held exploratory discussions, little progress could be reported as both leaders claimed the right to lead a new government.
For its part, Merkel's CDU said that it would only negotiate on forming a grand coalition with the SDP if it abandoned its hope of holding onto the chancellor's office.  Having voted overwhelmingly in favor of Merkel as party chief only days after the inconclusive election, the conservatives were unified in their bid to lead Germany's government, starting with the top spot.

For his part, Chancellor Schroeder said he strongly backed a left-right alliance saying, "I support the formation of that coalition and will do everything I can to ensure it is created." A recent poll showed that about 45 percent of voters favored the idea of a "grand coalition" -- something not seen on the German political landscape since 1966-1969.  On the question of who might lead such a coalition, Schroeder resisted increasing pressure to step aside in order to end the political deadlock.  Indeed, on Sept. 25, 2005, Schroeder said he saw no reason to relinquish his claim to a third term as German leader.  He has consistently noted that he would be more able to form a stable ruling majority in comparison with Merkel.  Still, voices within his own party have said that there would have to be some flexibility in negotiations on forming a government with the CDU.

Meanwhile talks between the CDU and the Greens broke down over substantial policy differences.  Without the Greens, Merkel and the CDU might find it almost impossible to form a coalition government without reaching out to Schroeder's SDP.  The Left Party, with some elected members believed to have worked  for the Statsi at one time, has been viewed as an unpalatable coalition partner to either the CDU and the SDP. Complicating matters was the fact that neither the Greens nor the Free Democrats were inclined to abandon their natural allies -- the SDP or the CDU respectively. As such, there were limited options for potential coalition partners.   

By October 2005, Merkel announced that a deal was struck between the CDU and the SDP to form a grand coalition.  In the proposed coalition, Merkel would be the first female Chancellor and the first from East Germany.  Her announcement was a subdued one, bereft of triumph that would have been normally expected.  This was likely due to the fact that in exchange for the position of Chancellor, the CDU had to give the majority of cabinet posts, including key portfolios such as finance, foreign affairs and labor, to the SDP.  Some ground also had to be relinquished as  regards reform plans. These compromises were not well-received by factions within the CDU, which were hoping for more aggressive reforms.  As such, even as the negotiation process was ongoing, it was clear that fractious debate should be anticipated on policy issues.

Within the SDP, there was a similar climate of tension.  Some Social Democrats, such as outgoing Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement,  argued that his party's leadership had agreed to give up its ground too quickly.  For Social Democrats  like Clement, there was anger that despite the fact that there had been more votes for the left-wing parties in the election, and that the election's actual outcome had been inconclusive, they had lost Schroeder as Chancellor. Indeed, speculation ran rampant that some Social Democrats would vote against the coalition agreement at the party conference scheduled for November 2005.

At the start of November 2005, the SPD leadership nominated a moderate, Matthias Platzeck, to replace its outgoing party leader, Franz Muentefering.  Platzeck, who had been the premier of Brandenburg state, was scheduled to face a confirmation vote at a party congress in Karlsruhe in mid-November 2005. The process, however, was tainted by intra-party conflict as the leftist wing of the party battled with the moderate movement.  It was this conflict that prompted the exit of  Muentefering, after his choice for party general secretary was rebuffed in favor of Andrea Nahles, a favorite of the party's left wing.  Nahles, like Platzeck, was yet to be confirmed at the party congress.  These differences within the SDP constituted the newest manifestation of ongoing conflicts within the party, most clearly illustrated by internal party opposition to Chancellor Schroeder's market-oriented reforms.

The dissonance within the SDP also affected coalition talks with Merkel's conservatives and at the time, it was possible that it could impede her aspiration to become Germany's first female chancellor later in November.  Indeed, it remained conceivable  that internal splits within the SDP could result in a vote by the SDP congress against participation in the grand coalition and the formation of a coalition agreement with Merkel. Such an outcome could compel the formation of a different coalition government, or it could spur new elections. Nevertheless, by mid-November 2005,  both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats had given their consent for the formation of a coalition government.  As well, Muentefering of the Social Democrats was chosen to be Vice Chancellor.

Meanwhile, many observers predicted that with all the disastisfaction from within the two parties in the proposed coalition, it was unlikely that stable governance could prevail for the long-term, even if it was installed. Many predicted the collapse of the coalition government within a year or two, while still others wondered if the very coalition plan that had been put forth --with Merkel at the helm -- would even survive the next phase of negotiations. 

On Nov. 22, 2005, Angela Merkel was sworn in as Germany's first woman chancellor at a ceremony in the country's parliament.  Despite encouragement from outgoing Chancellor and Social Democrat, Gerhardt Schroeder, 51 members of the governing coalition voted against her in the Bundestag.  Some analysts said that dissonance so early in the life of the "grand coalition" was a preview of governing challenges that were sure to emerge in the not so distant future.  They forecasted further complications as a result of the formation of the new government.  As indicated previously, several key portfolios, such as foreign relations, finance, labour and justice, were held by members of the SPD.  As such, the most significant aspects of policy-making would be guided by the Social Democrats, even as the CDU held the top post.  Conflict on dealing with much-needed reforms was, therefore, sure to follow. Nevertheless, the coming to power of this new ruling coalition was heralded as the end of the "Cold War" in modern German politics.

At the close of 2005, the new German government was in  a fairly precarious position.  The outcome of the 2005 election suggested that much-needed economic reforms in German did not, in fact, enjoy popular support.  In fact, if one considered the performance of all three center-left parties in Germany -- the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left -- it was apparent that over 50 percent of Germans voted against  conservative goals, and against the kinds of reforms that were planned for the country.  The contradiction between the planned policies and the voting trends of the people presents a complex and even contradictory political landscape in Germany, indicating many challenges in the foreseeable future.


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