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Opinion: Dissolving the Doubt

As Germany's election campaign heats up, DW-WORLD is starting a regular column on political events leading up to the vote on Sept. 18. This week, Marc Young considers the constitutional controversy surrounding the poll.

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Gerhard Schröder intentionally lost a confidence vote last month

I may have lived in Germany too long.

How else can I explain going online during my recent holiday in Sardinia to read up on the latest political happenings in Berlin?

Admittedly, I wasn't constantly mulling the possible unconstitutionality of Germany's early general election as I was splashing about in the island's emerald green seas or sleeping on a white sandy beach. However, just the fact that I was checking up on Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel after quaffing down a tasty cappuccino clearly outs me as a Teutonic political junky.

Fortunately, such predilections should serve me well in this new weekly column. From the perspective of an informed outsider, I will aim to analyze and scrutinize what could be the most important German election campaign in a generation. I encourage readers to use the feedback link at the bottom of each commentary to share their own thoughts on the topics I delve into.

It won't be news to anyone who occasionally visits DW-WORLD that Germany is in the midst of a serious economic crisis. Whoever wins the election in September will have to tackle the county's twin woes of high unemployment and sluggish growth. But the next chancellor will also have to address a crisis of confidence affecting Germany's collective psyche.

That is, if there even is an election.

All major political parties and an overwhelming majority of the public support Schröder's decision to bring forward the general election by a year, but Germany's Constitutional Court could still put the brakes on a campaign that is now in full swing.

Circumventing the constitution?

Gebäude des Bundesverfassungsgerichts (BVG) in Karlsruhe

Germany's Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

That's because Schröder, who cannot dissolve parliament himself, was forced to fake losing a confidence vote to trigger the early election one year before his second four-year term had ended. That has led some disgruntled backbenchers of Schröder's own center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to petition the country's highest court to stop the poll on the grounds the chancellor circumvented the constitution.

I would tend to agree with the assessment that the confidence vote was less than kosher. However, I also think Germany desperately needs to be shaken out of its current self-pitying, reform-fearing, navel-gazing malaise. And the best way to do that is by going to the polls this fall. The country can't afford to wait another year. Berlin would face certain political gridlock as Schröder's agenda would be stymied by the conservative opposition, which controls the upper house of parliament, and rebel leftwing MPs in his own party.

That still doesn't completely eliminate all of the queasiness I feel about clearly disingenuous path taken toward an early election and is why the next government will also need to pursue an amendment to the constitution allowing the chancellor to dissolve parliament in future.

Stable democracy

Deutsche Flagge und Teil der Reichstagskuppel

The German flag flying next to the glass dome of the Reichstag.

Yes, Germany's post-war founding fathers had plenty of good reasons for making the dissolution of the Bundestag a difficult affair. Germany's Basic Law was written to prevent the political instability seen during the Weimar Republic that helped Hitler come to power in 1933. But who can seriously argue today that modern Germany is not a stable and mature democracy?

As far as representing the will of the voters, Germany's system of proportional representation is vastly superior to the first-past-post methods used by Britain and many other countries. But it is an anachronism that the chancellor does not have the power to dissolve parliament like the leaders of other parliamentary democracies.

It is time for that to change. The present dire state Germany finds itself in means politicians and the public are willing to let the blatantly faked confidence vote last month slide with a wink and nudge. But unless the Basic Law is amended to avoid such a situation in the future, Germany's leaders will be tacitly legitimizing such political hocus pocus.

And that would be far more damaging to Germany's democratic institutions than by giving the chancellor the power to dissolve parliament.

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