German Conservatives, SPD Begin Squabbling Ahead of General Election | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.02.2009
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German Conservatives, SPD Begin Squabbling Ahead of General Election

For four years, the Christian conservatives and the Social Democrats have tried to get along in a grand coalition. But with elections in September, the two parties are now seeking to distance themselves from one another.

SPD and CDU flags in front of German parliament

Will campaigning bury the grand coalition's effort to get along?

The first major harbinger of an imminent change in Germany's political climate has come with a spat over streamlining the country's labyrinthine environmental legislation.

Simplifying Germany's environmental laws was one of the points agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and Social Democrats in the contract that formed the current governing grand coalition in 2005.

But over the weekend, German Environmental Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a SPD member, withdrew a proposed environmental code of laws from consideration by the governing Cabinet, citing what he called an obstructionist attitude by the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union.

"Urged on by protectors of wealth, worriers and refuseniks, significant portions of the Union are slamming on the brakes now, when deeds should follow words," Gabriel wrote in an official statement.

Campaign posters in Hesse

Hesse conservatives under Roland Koch came out ahead in January's state election

Representatives from both parties immediately began pointing fingers and placing blame for the breakdown.

"I view with concern the fact that nervousness within the CSU is beginning to block us in many areas," SPD General Secretary Hubertus Heil told a German public broadcaster. "What happened with the environmental code of laws is truly something from a lunatic asylum."

Predictably, conservatives disagreed with that assessment.

"Mr. Gabriel torpedoed it pretty thoroughly," Roland Koch, the recently re-elected premiere of Hesse and CDU member, told the dpa news agency. "Now we'll just have to wait for the fallout."

Jockeying for position

Steinmeier and Merkel

Merkel will be facing off against Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in September

A grand coalition is the only governing political constellation that does not seek re-election, and both the CDU and SPD would like to take charge with their preferred coalition partners.

To do that, though, the Social Democrats especially need to highlight differences with their fellow governing party. For that reason, many commentators view the row over the environmental code of laws as the first of what are likely to be many squabbles within the grand coalition in the months to come.

Recent polls put the CDU anywhere from 10 percent to 20 percent ahead of the Social Democrats, and the SPD fared very badly in last month's state election in Hesse.

But conservatives also failed to pick up many new votes in that contest. Instead, it was the smaller parties -- the free-market liberal Free Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party -- who increased their support.

Silhouette of party leader Guido Westerwelle in front of FDP logo

Smaller parties like the FDP could make further gains

That trend could continue nationally in September, especially if the smaller parties can portray the members of the grand coalition as putting their own political interests above those of the country.

That has been precisely the reaction to the demise of the environmental code of laws. Strikingly, although they are the conservatives' preferred coalition partners, the FDP has been critical of the CSU, who would also play a role in any conservative-led ruling coalition.

"The CSU would be well advised to abandon their blockade approach and not let an important project ... fall victim to the political back-and-forth between parties," Bavarian FDP Chairwoman Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger told the Handelsblatt newspaper.

Some Free Democrats are even taking aim at the chancellor, who has not been publically involved in the issue and has also been accused of taking a passive approach to the ongoing economic crisis, despite the 80 billion euros ($103.7 billion) Germany has spent on rescue efforts.

"Whenever important decisions are at stake, the chancellor disappears," FDP Vice-Chairman Rainer Bruederle, told Handelsblatt. "The policy of hesitation is making the economic crisis worse."

And the tone is likely to get even more critical as September approaches, both from within the grand coalition and from without.

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