Schr?der: early elections in Autumn.

I suppose German politics aren’t entirely predictable anymore. A few minutes ago, German Chancellor Schroeder confirmed earlier statements by Franz Muentefering, the SPD’s chairman, that the current red-green coalition will seek a – constitutionally problematic – vote of no-confidence to allow the early dissolution of the Bundestag and hold federal elections in autumn this year.

The move comes as the SPD has to stomach a bitter defeat in today’s state elections in North-Rhine Westfalia, a state governed by the SPD alone or in coalitions for 37 years and not surprisingly usually considered a traditional Social Democratic stronghold. Both main television stations have the SPD at about 37%, losing about 6%, and the CDU at about 45%, winning about 8%, both the FDP and the Greens are considered to have passed the 5% representation threshold with about 6% but lost 3,5 and 1%, respectively. Other parties jointly managed to secure slightly more than 5% of the vote – for current, usually reliable, figures and numeric analyes, check this site (in German, but mostly colours and figures)

The BBC’s Berlin correspondent says that the SPD will try to call the early election because – after losing the votes of Northrhine-Westfalia (NRW) “it has … now lost so many seats in the Bundesrat upper house of parliament that its ability to actively govern is massively diminished.” I don’t think that was their main concern. In fact, the Conservative opposition has held the majority in the German upper Parliamentary chamber for a long time, and effectively used it to block or change much of the government’s legislation. While certainly creating a less stable situation, the lost election in NRW does not give them a 2/3 majority in the chamber – the opposition is still 3 votes short thereof. Such a majority would lead to situation where the government needed a 2/3 majority in the Bundestag to pass any law without the consent of the Bundesrat. However, the next state elections take place early in 2006 when most legislative work would have stopped because of the impending – regular – federal elections in autumn 2006 anyway.

So what’s the point of calling the election early? Quite frankly, I don’t entirely understand it yet. Of course, governing would have become more difficult, simply because of the difficult public discourse. Of course, there would have been faction wars in the SPD (as there will be now) that would have endangered the slim red-green majority in the Bundestag anyway. I understand that a campaign is likely to unite these forces more than the an expected defeat in 2006. Of course, Schr?der is said to be at his best when he’s standing with his back against the wall.

But what would a “clear mandate for his government” – which Schr?der is asking for – in autumn change about the majorities in the Bundesrat? It might help the SPD win the state elections next year on the coat tails of a federal victory. But apart from that – it would make Schr?der’s job a little easier, but not much.

The entire timing of the agenda 2010 was designed for elections in 2006, not in 2005. With first signs that the SPD had successfully steered Germany through a difficult economic period, he might ahve had a chance in 2006. But the labour market is unliekely to pick up visibly, even if there’s more growth than expected over the summer. In addition, there’s not much chance to drag the opposition into a long fight over their Chancellor-nominee with an election in this autumn: it will now in all likelihood be Angela Merkel. And running against her will be more difficult than running against the Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber, whose half-hearted attempts to again secure the CDU/CSU nomination for Chancellor was probably the biggest sore spot in the Conservative’s strategy since 2002.

With an election this early, the timing could not be better to actually get some reforms done – if the CDU/CSU win the federal election: Their majority in the Bundesrat will last a while even if they lost the next couple of state elections. Most of those who supported Schr?der because of his reforms, and not inspite of them, will see this. And they are unlikely to vote for the SPD in such a situation.

So maybe Schr?der’s move is indeed a patriotic one. But I think it is more likely that Franz M?ntefering believed it would be too dangerous for the SPD as a party to go on like this. That going on governing would tear it apart in the end.

Only one thing’s for sure now. This will be an exciting summer.

16 thoughts on “Schr?der: early elections in Autumn.

  1. it could be that they are hoping for a way the election is turning that forces a big coalition of the CDU with the SPD. Could be a complete miscalculation.

    In any case, they are taking away from the CDU the possibility of finger pointing and calling for new elections and a lot of mudslinging till 2006.

    Or they are completely fine with being in the opposition again.

  2. Firstly, going down after really failing a motion of confidence would be even worse.
    Secondly, they have to think farther into the feature than one year. Doing it this way they’ll fare better in 2009.

  3. >In any case, they are taking away from the CDU the >possibility of finger pointing and calling for new >elections and a lot of mudslinging till 2006.

    yeah, but wasn’t that exactly the point? I’d want an opposition like that while I’m enjoying the hard earned benefits of the labour market reforms finally having a little effect (assuming they will next year…)

    >Doing it this way they’ll fare better in 2009.

    Really? or will this go down as the moment the SPD declared it was really “non-governmental” material? I mean Westerwelle’s “Red-Green has declared defeat” has gained a little credibility tonight.

  4. assuming they will next year…

    Exactly. If they don’t, you’re toast. For a long time. And probably they are insufficient. That the SPD might have the political capital and resolve to do more is unlikely.

    or will this go down as the moment the SPD declared it was really “non-governmental” material

    It is. They debate must be had. In a way a governing party cannot.
    Mr. M?ntefering’s locust are now much easier to explain.

  5. Though the move was of course unexpected, I do appreciate the logic behind it.

    The SPD had two options:

    1. Regular elections in 2006.
    – No realistic choice of winning (even the unlikely event of Germany winning the World Cup would have been unlikely to save Schr?der).
    – Power greatly reduced to do any more major legislation until then
    – Risk of splitting the party in the process: the split between the “realo” reform-wing and the “fundi” locust-hating-wing already became apparent. It would have widended. As Schr?der’s parliamentary majority is very slim, he would even have faced a realistic threat of losing power in the very humiliating way of being stabbed by his own men (the Helmut Schmidt scenario).

    2. Early elections in 2005
    – Chance for the chancellor to go down in style (and preserving a legacy as the man who began the necessary reforms in Germany).
    – Chance to reunite the party (the platform is likely to be much more M?ntefering than Schr?der I am afraid).
    – No real loss in real power: the election is lost either way. And during his last year in power Schr?der would have been crippled anyway.

    The way I judge Schr?der, patriotism probably wasn’t the driving factor.
    Though I have to admit that this was probably the most patriotic decision Schr?der ever took.

  6. Very interesting move by Scr?der. And difficult to know how to interpret it.

    When you say patriot Tobias, you might also say statesman. It could be that someone does this because they think it is good for the society, that Germany seriously needs a more important reform process, and that a weakened SPD isn’t in any position to be able to carry this through. But the sooner you start the better. Also the longer an unpopular government continues carrying out unpopular reforms, the worse it is for democracy, the problem of the far right etc etc.

    Politicians used to do this kind of thing, we’ve grown used to the idea that they don’t any more. Are we just too cynical? From outside Germany I really can’t form an impression.

    But there are more possibilities. We are all writing off the SPD in the autumn, but maybe we are doing this too quickly. Most of the vote in recent elections could be seen as a protest vote. The reforms are unpopular, so the government takes a hit. But the opposition party wants even more reform, it isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion that when push comes to shove the electorate put their vote where their mouth has been. You need to look at participation rates in the elections, things like that.

    It could be that Schr?der is not optimistic, but thinks there may be a chance. Certainly I think the SPD will do better than most commentators are imagining. Remember Hans Werner Sinn’s point: 40% of Germans receive payments from the Federal State in one form or another: that’s one hell of a potential ‘clientele’ vote. On this view, Schr?der would simply want to get the election out of the way so as to be in the position of really getting down to business on the reform programme.

    Another theory: maybe they think (understandably) that the reforms will prove hugely unpopular, so why not hand the batton to the opposition. Advancing the elections one year advances the time you have the next shot at getting into government by one year (at least: we don’t know that the CDU would last the term either, remember soon they will be the ones who are being pelted with eggs).

    Also you have to look at the panorama in Europe. Maybe he is already ceding to the ‘no’ vote in France. Clearly a government without popular support would not be well placed to front the difficult environment which could present itself after next Sunday, and the possible consequneces for the euro. This would take us back to the statesman argument.

    Obviously then there is the Merkel/Stoiber argument. Having the election early may favour Merkel, and she may not be so different from Scr?der in reality.

    Finally there is the point that I think it is *way too* optimistic to expect any sustained improvement in the economic situation by 2006. Obviously, like in the first three months of this year, you can get a good quarter. But sustained and ongoing growth. In the short term this is very difficult. So next year was always going to be pretty painful politically.

    Interesting times.

  7. “the platform is likely to be much more M?ntefering than Schr?der I am afraid”

    This is really the argument that has been worrying me. Whither the SPD in opposition. You need even more statesmanship to avoid the follies of being dragged along by the cheap ‘anti’ vote.

    My feeling is that any incoming CDU government will rapidly follow the SPD down the road of becoming hugely unpopular – not because it is the CDU, but because what any responsible government in Germany now needs to do is going to be hugely unpopular. The easiest thing then is to campaign against.

    Actually what Germany needs is a ‘pact’ (similar to the PSOE-PP anti terrorism pact here in Spain) to take the reform process out of the zone of direct political conflict. But then this is impossible.

  8. the platform is likely to be much more M?ntefering than Schr?der I am afraid

    For now, no. They are forced to give battle under Schr?der’s banner. He’ll either lead them to triumph, making his platform unassailable, or much likelier, to doom. In the latter case his corpse will be dismembered politically.
    (I’ll stop reading lord of the rings)

    After that the current generation of leaders will be removed in a summary action including M?ntefering, Schr?der, Clement and Eichel. After that they’ll have years to reform and as they’ll have states to defend they cannot go to never-never land. If you look at the election calender you’ll notice that until 2008 mainly either safe CDU states or the remaining SPD states are at stake.

    Leading to the next point. Until 2008 a CDU government is mathematically implausible to lose its majority in the upper house. It may be retained the full four years.
    Her position will be stronger than Kohl’s. She may become unpopular, but she’ll be decisive having no choice. She has to hope that reforms work lacking other options. Plus, people like a strong leader. Her majority in the upper house being as large as it is, she can afford to sacrifice states as the states’ PMs can’t rebel as a defection wouldn’t be effective.

    Secondly, the loss of all states save one effectively has interrupted recruitment. The normal path to the chancellorship is a state’s prime ministership. There are five PMs. Two govern with the PDS. They are tainted. One is an old guy, leaving two. That’s too little.

    Thirdly, anybody in office in 2009 should be able to point out that he turned the economy around. The alternative I dare not explore.
    When I said they care about 2009 I did not mean that winning that election is likely. Any government has been reelected at least once against all expectations. The likelier option is doing to the CDU in 2009 what was done to them in 2002. The likely date for a new SPD chancellor is 2013.

    Currently M?ntefering is doing the Blairite option. He lets Merkel do the hatchet job and opens the “kinder, gentler” approach to the next generation. He already opened the discussion.

  9. Thanks Oliver, this fill some gaps in my deficient understanding of the German political system.

    “Currently M?ntefering is doing the Blairite option. He lets Merkel do the hatchet job and opens the “kinder, gentler” approach to the next generation. He already opened the discussion.”

    Yes, this certainly makes sense.

    “Thirdly, anybody in office in 2009 should be able to point out that he turned the economy around. The alternative I dare not explore.”

    Yes, well I wouldn’t be banking on this. I think we are headed for distinctly choppy waters, but I won’t re-open this debate here.

  10. I think we are headed for distinctly choppy waters, but I won’t re-open this debate here.

    That would mean a national unity government and the NPD in the lower house. The excrement would hit the ventilation device. “Economy ?ber alles”. The consequences are scary. I really hope it doesn’t come to that.

  11. “I really hope it doesn’t come to that”.

    Well obviously I agree. But sometimes simply hope isn’t enough.

    “That would mean a national unity government and the NPD in the lower house”.

    Well this is what I am saying about a pact between the SPD and the CDU, but I really don’t see it. You are right though: if the main parties went for consensus this would obviously carry the risk of fuelling the extremes.

    But another scenario is the possible radicalisation of the SPD. I have no idea which is more probable.

  12. Well this is what I am saying about a pact between the SPD and the CDU, but I really don’t see it.

    They aren’t desperate yet. That it would require. But the radicals would come due to failure of both parties. The SPD has had its shot and the CDU would have failed, too.
    The time for radical solutions would have come.
    The SPD cannout out-PDS the PDS.

  13. IMO this is Schr?der as usual, threatening to quit. He’s best at that, and no one yet called his bluff.
    That said, on the merits I think the idea is good, as it will hopefully makes this election about the economy and Agenda 2010. And that might end the dishonesty on both sides, with the SPD claiming 2002 validated its economic agenda and the CDU/CSU pretending that they have a better plan and that people actually like that plan instead of voting against the softer SPD version.
    Plus, the electorate hopefully will be forced to take a long hard look at the status quo and make an informed choice about where it wants to go.

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