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.