One Year Later
The anniversary of Germany's 2005 election last week was not marked by much fanfare on either side of the coalition. There was far more fussing over whether the coalition has the stamina to hold for another three years. Yet amidst all the arguments and debates across the political aisle, the fact is that at the moment, there is no real alternative to this political equation in Germany. Speculation about the need for new elections remains exactly that, primarily because the voters would lose even more confidence in the political leadership if they declared bankruptcy after one year. Neither the Greens nor the Free Democrats can offer a viable alternative by themselves. And the idea of creating a red, green, yellow (SPD, Greens, Free Democrat (FDP)) mixture or a black, green, yellow (CDU, Greens, FDP) coalition is not ripe fruit. There is still a great deal of political baggage left over from last year's election that will prevent any such reconfiguring from happening very soon.
Nevertheless, Germans are indeed losing confidence in the two large political partners who have close to three-quarters of the Bundestag under their control. After all, they ask, if there is no viable opposition to stop them, why can't they get more done in the way of reforms and make less noise about why they cannot agree on them? Even the bickering between the CDU and the CSU is increasing over the healthcare reform issue. Much of this is contributing to a continuing slide in membership in the CDU and the SPD. The Social Democrats have lost over forty percent of their members from a high of over one million in 1980, while the CDU has lost fourteen percent of its members since that time. Currently, the two parties are almost tied for the same number of members at around six hundred thousand apiece. The smaller parties have lost ground in the last eight years as well, and the number of citizens choosing not to vote has been increasing steadily.
Last week's elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern resulted in losses for the two larger parties and also generated enough backlash for a right-wing party, the National Party of Germany (NPD), to squeeze itself into the state parliament. Beleaguered by very high unemployment rates, many of the NPD votes came from those under thirty who see dim prospects for their future.
But the general loss of confidence among the voters and the cross-party bickering that has contributed to it should come as no surprise. The first half of the new government's tenure in 2006 was marked by what most people saw as a fine performance on the foreign policy stage. More recently, amidst the domestic political dust-ups between the parties, it is interesting to note that hard decisions on the foreign policy front were still made. The Bundestag approved the extension of the German engagement in Afghanistan this week even though the situation is becoming increasingly dangerous there. Recent approval also came from the Bundestag for sending peacekeeping contingents to the Middle East, an historical and controversial decision for Germany.
Yet the domestic political battles were predestined to throw sand into the machine of the coalition. After all, the domestic policy realm is where the full force of particular interests meet in battle. The healthcare reform package is the best, or worst, example, and not only in Germany. One can also see the wreckage of healthcare reform efforts in the United States going back many years, not to speak of social security reform efforts more recently. These are the deadly electric rails for all politicians.
We all know that the first grand coalition in the Federal Republic of Germany forty years ago lasted only three years. The challenges then are familiar today, unemployment among them, although the crisis was having a half-million unemployed versus over four million today. Overall, the decision-making process in Germany is far more complicated at both the state and federal level today (not to speak of the EU's impact), with more players competing for less resources. Sixteen Länder are represented in the Bundesrat in 2006 and their Minister-Presidents are more vocal in the domestic political debates, best demonstrated by the leader of Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber. Germany's parliament is one of the largest in the world with 614 representatives. Wrestling with serious problems with so many actors in a 24/7 media environment is not a formula for smooth decision-making.
Germans are struggling to finance the social systems they have built up over the past five decades, and are trying to redistribute this load. That is not unique to Germany; Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands have all been struggling with these problems as well. Yet Germany seems to be uncertain about the parameters of change. The result of last year's election was a reflection of the voters' hesitation. But the first year of the coalition leaves both the SPD and the CDU sitting at the same low level of voter confidence with tough issues to be resolved still ahead and declining confidence that the coalition can handle them. The CDU/CSU are at the lowest level of support since unification.
The challenge any government faces is proposing realistic goals and then maintaining support for reaching them, even when it pinches people where it hurts. It is precisely then when people need to know why it is worth the pain and the adjustments needed to overcome it.
The Berlin coalition partners are stuck with each other for the moment, whether they like it or not. But they should not be stuck in political mud when it comes to implementing their agenda. And there are things to do that cannot - or should not - be put off. The economy is picking up, and unemployment is coming down a bit. Bringing down the national debt and encouraging job growth by deregulating the labor market can generate some confidence in the future. In effect, the coalition has to look like it is focused on confronting the problems, not themselves, if it is to bring the voters along with them. That seems to work better on the foreign policy stage than it does at home.
At some point the measure of success comes down not only to policies, but to people. Chancellor Merkel is not the moderator of the government. She is the leader who needs to make clear to her coalition partners and her voters how and why they need to work together. For the foreseeable future, there is really no other realistic choice. But the longer the coalition spends time on itself, the more people will spend time thinking about other choices.
This essay appeared in the September 29, 2006 AICGS Advisor.
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