German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has a party discipline problem. A handful of left-wing Social Democrats could scuttle key welfare and economic reforms, upon which he has staked his political future.
Schröder will have to fight to get his coalition to back painful reforms.
On Friday, Schröder’s center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens passed sweeping reforms to Germany’s health care system. Despite warning his government could collapse if it failed to secure its own so-called “Chancellor” majority, six of Schröder’s own backbenchers deserted him.
Since the heath reforms plans were co-sponsored by the opposition conservatives, there was never any doubt that the legislation would pass. But Schröder has repeatedly said he would step down if could not muster his own majority on key bills. In the end, he got it, but only because several opposition members of parliament (MPs) did not turn up for the vote.
By voting against the legislation, the left-wing rebels have re-ignited a debate within the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on how to instill more party discipline. With a number of contentious welfare and economic reforms yet to hit the parliament in the coming months, many in the SPD fear a rough autumn in the lower house of the Bundestag.
“It’s all or nothing. The voting in the Bundestag will be more important than it was with the health reform,” SPD parliamentarian Dieter Wiefelspütz told Die Welt newspaper on Monday. “It’s essential that we have our own majority.”
Cracking the whip
Party discipline in Germany falls somewhere between the United States and Britain. Whereas American members of Congress often vote independently of their own party on specific issues, British MPs can face serious consequences if they do not toe the party line. With its similar parliamentary system, German MPs can also be sanctioned if they do not back the party.
Many of the SPD rebels accuse Schröder of betraying the party’s roots by pushing reforms that will effectively trim the welfare state, lower taxes and scale back pensions. Some centrist members of the SPD have already called on the six rebels to give up their Bundestag seats, if they cannot follow Schröder’s lead. That looks unlikely to happen, but there are already moves to strip them of all parliamentary offices.
Whether such disciplinary moves will encourage the left-wing rebels to back Schröder’s so-called “Agenda 2010” reform package is uncertain, but clearly several strong-willed MPs are no longer impressed by the Chancellor’s repeated threats to resign. Schröder has had to make such threats on a number of occasions during his five years in office and in one instance he had to combine a controversial plan to deploy troops abroad with a confidence vote.
On Friday, Schröder warned the SPD faced a long stint out of power, if the party failed to push through his Agenda 2010. “Look what happened in 1982 as the Social-Liberal coalition fell apart amidst a process of erosion,” he said, referring to the break up of Helmut Schmidt's SPD-led government that preceded the 16-year term of conservative Helmut Kohl.
Christian Sosialist Union party parliamentary floor leader Michael Glos.
The conservatives have naturally been emboldened by the SPD’s problems and have begun predicting the fall of the center-left coalition. “If the chancellor doesn't manage to get further reforms through with his own majority then the government will end,” Michael Glos, floor leader of the Christian Social Union told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung over the weekend. However, SPD Secretary General Olaf Scholz on Monday remained confident the party would back the chancellor when necessary. “I am quite sure that the SPD parliamentarians and the party are behind the reforms and we will get the majorities that are needed,” he told German ZDF television.