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Germany

The Troubled Red-Green Legacy

Hoping to trigger new elections, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder deliberately failed a vote of confidence in parliament Friday. DW-WORLD looks at the record of his red-green coalition government so far.

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The Greens were often the driving force in the government's reforms

Schröder's government was a seminal experiment in German politics. After starting fast out of the gate in 1998, the two parties have faded just as quickly of late.

Given the deep-set feeling of frustration in Germany at the moment, it seems hard to believe that it was only seven years ago that the country was awash in optimism.

After 16 years in power, Germans had voted Helmut Kohl and the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats (CDU and FDP) out of power, giving the mandate to the ascendant Social Democrats and his Green Party partners. The red-green coalition, as it was known, was a groundbreaking social experiment in German politics that was to wipe away the corruption and glacial pace of the Kohl government and lead the country down a new, reform-minded path.

Seven years later, Schröder's Social Democrats and Greens are on the brink of collapse amid rising unemployment rates and reforms that have proven unpopular with wide swathes of the population. The chancellor wants parliamentary elections brought forward, perhaps as early as September, which is a year earlier than planned.

The parliament voted against the chancellor on Friday, which is what Schröder wanted. If President Horst Köhler and the Constitutional Court approve the measure, Germans will be heading to the ballot box this fall.

Vertrauensfrage Helmut Kohl

Chancellor Helmut Kohl was voted out in 1998 after 16 years in power

If opinion polls are right, Schröder and his coalition will get walloped in the September elections, bringing an end to what analysts say was a well-meaning, but ultimately unsuccessful, political experiment.

A new experiment

"It was a societal attempt to bring about a new coalition that had an anchor in the new middle," said Uwe Andersen, a political analyst at the Ruhr-University in Bochum.

The new government's leaders were former leftist radicals and anti-establishment activists from the late 1960s who railed against Germany's stodgy conservatism in street demonstrations and demanded it re-examine its Nazi past. Three decades later, Schröder came into power, one year after British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and joined him in embracing the "third way" philosophy on governing that sought to balance social responsibility with economic dynamism.

Bildergalerie Gerhard Schröder 14

Blair (l.) and Schröder's relationship hasn't been as chummy of late

Red-green set about passing laws that allowed dual citizenship for immigrants to Germany up to a certain age, and legalized gay unions. The Greens, the permanent opposition party born out of the pacifist, environmental movement of the late 1970s and early 80s, became the engine behind many of these changes, said Andersen.

"The SPD, at heart, were a pretty conservative party," he said in an interview.

The Greens also convinced Schröder's Social Democrats to push for an environmental tax and for a phase out of nuclear energy by 2023. The first reactors have already been taken off line with more planned unless a new CDU government reverses the trend.

A new face in the world

The Greens also gave the government one of its most popular figures. Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer became a representative of an increasingly bolder Germany on the world stage. Fischer, who was photographed beating up a police officer during a riot in the 1970s, became an adept diplomat, helping steer the European Union's policy on Middle East peace and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Deutsche Bundeswehrsoldaten in den Bergen bei Kabul

A Bundeswehr soldier as part of the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. Germany is the second largest troop contributor in Afghanistan's after the U.S.

Schröder underwent a transformation of his own, from a foreign policy rookie and euroskeptic to one of the EU's most influential players and a chancellor willing to deploy German soldiers into conflicts. In 2002, he won re-election largely by opposing U.S. President George W. Bush's planned invasion of Iraq.

"Quietly walking around doesn't exist anymore, the (foreign) policy is formulated very clearly and very loudly," said Andreas Maurer, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Schröder has tried to make (looking out) for national interests part of the vocabulary."

Breaking point

But domestically, he was not as determined. The red-green coalition post-2002 has been a study in hesitancy and non-committal policies. Andersen credits Schröder with realizing it was time to introduce reforms that would tackle Germany's low investment rates, stubbornly high unemployment rates and overly generous welfare state.

Wartezimmer beim Arbeitsamt in München

A waiting room at a Munich unemployment agency. The number of jobless Germans reached 4.7 million in June, or 11.3 percent of the population.

"Schröder shook up the party, which was probably needed," he said. "The SPD followed the chancellor, but without real conviction."

Industry heads and economic experts, meanwhile, criticized Schröder's Agenda 2010 for not going far enough in reforming the country's rigid labor laws and stemming the tide of German companies looking abroad for a better investment climate.

Strains after seven years of marriage

Germans, and his SPD, were getting more and more frustrated with Schröder's grand promises.

Around 4.7 million people are currently unemployed, more than a million more than when Schröder took power in 1998, promising then to cut unemployment. On May 22, the shaky support the SPD gave its chancellor collapsed in a landslide. Massive losses on that day in state elections in North-Rhine Westphalia put the CDU in power in that traditional SPD stronghold and gave the leftist wing of the party a reason to break off.

A newly formed alliance between the PDS, the successor to East Germany's communist party, and disgruntled SPD leftists threatens to siphon away votes should an election take place this Fall. The Greens, meanwhile, were caught completely unawares by Schröder's announcement to hold early elections and have publicly criticized the chancellor for giving up on their coalition.

Joschka Fischer und Gerhard Schröder

A marriage showing strains

A marriage, the saying goes, starts to show the first strains after seven years. Schröder's coalition is facing the same fate.

"Looking back, the red-green social political experiment failed," said Andersen.

The Greens have made noises that they will not vote against Schröder in today's vote of confidence, and doom their own government. Schröder's campaign team, meanwhile, has let it be known that they will go into the election fight alone, without the help of their coalition partner.

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