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Postwar elections

July 26, 2005

In September, Germans will elect a new parliament. Today, the country can look back on a checkered history of Bundestag elections since the German Federal Republic was founded in 1949.

A couple in traditional Bavarian costume stand in polling booths
Germans have gone to the polls at least every four years since 1949Image: AP

West German citizens went to the polls in August 1949. It was the first time since the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933 that men and women could vote in a democratic election for a new parliament.

The turnout was one many other countries could only dream of. Nearly 80 percent of eligible voters headed to the ballot boxes.

The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), got the best results, with 31 percent of the votes. CDU chairman Konrad Adenauer was elected the nation's first chancellor, based on a coalition of CDU/CSU, Free Democrats (FDP) and the very conservative German Party (DP).

Konrad Adenauer takes his oath of office on Sept. 20, 1949 from President Erich Koehler
Konrad Adenauer takes his oath of office on Sept. 20, 1949 from President Erich KoehlerImage: DHM

The Social Democrats (SPD), who won 29.2 percent of the vote, began a 17-year period in the opposition.

1957: "No experiments"

Adenauer's policies were focused on consolidating Germany's market economy and integrating the country into the western camp. A significant step toward this aim was Germany's entry into NATO in 1955.

Voters in the 1957 election confirmed the government, which had run on the slogan "no experiments." The CDU/CSU won 50.2 percent of the votes. It was the only time in German postwar history that a party could gain the absolute majority in parliament in federal elections.

But 1957 also marked the beginning of the SPD's rise in support, which continued to 1972.

1965: The grand coalition

The coalition partners CDU/CSU and FDP won a significant victory in the 1965 federal elections. But one year later, the partners couldn't reach agreement on how to fill the impending budget gap. The FDP resisted the Union's aimed tax increases and the coalition collapsed.

This marked the beginning of a three-year grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD. Kurt-Georg Kiesinger (CDU) was elected chancellor. SPD chairman and former mayor of Berlin Willy Brandt became his deputy and foreign minister.

The 1969 elections forced the CDU/CSU to retreat to the opposition for the first time in postwar German history. The SPD formed a coalition with the FDP and Brandt became chancellor.

Willy Brandt
Willy Brandt's push for relations with East Germany led to his fallImage: dpa

1972: Confirmation for Brandt

Chancellor Brandt emphasized domestic reforms but more importantly, he wanted to improve relations with Eastern Bloc countries and the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

This controversial Ostpolitik led to fierce domestic wrangling and almost to Brandt's fall in 1972. Several MPs from SPD and FDP left their parties. The CDU/CSU felt its time had come and demanded a vote on a motion of no confidence.

The attempt failed by an extremely narrow margin. But the government no longer had the necessary majority in parliament. The Bundestag was dissolved and new elections were called in the fall of 1972. These gave the SPD 45.8 percent of the vote, its best result on a federal level ever. The SPD/FDP coalition remained in power.

Brandt was forced to resign in 1974 following an espionage scandal. He was replaced by his finance minister Helmut Schmidt, also a Social Democrat.

Schmidt is congratulated after the no-confidence vote
Helmut Schmidt won a vote of no confidence in Feb. 1982 but was later defeated by KohlImage: AP

1983: Kohl comes to power

Although the CDU/CSU faction was the strongest in parliament, the SPD continued ruling with Schmidt through a coalition with the FDP. But following elections in 1980, growing disputes with the FDP in tackling economic issues led several FDP ministers to leave Schmidt's cabinet in 1982.

Schmidt attempted to continue with a minority SPD-only government. But he was forced to resign by a constructive vote of no confidence on Oct. 1, 1982 - the first in German history to be successful.

The FDP joined the CDU/CSU and elected Helmut Kohl as chancellor. German voters confirmed this new coalition in early elections in 1983, giving the CDU/CSU 48.8 percent and the FDP 7 percent of the vote. The SPD only won 38.2 percent.

In 1983 the environmentalist Green party made it into parliament for the first time, winning 5.6 percent of the vote.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl ahead of a parliamentary vote of no confidence in December 1982Image: AP

1990: A unified German vote

The first federal elections following German unification in 1990 gave the parliament a new face. Although the Green party didn't make the five-percent hurdle necessary to hold seats in the Bundestag, special rules for this first united German election allowed the Greens' eastern German partner Buendnis 90 to have eight representatives.

Under these rules, the reform communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) was also represented with 17 MPs, although it had only won 2.4 percent of votes.

The ruling CDU/CSU saw a slight loss of votes, from 44.3 percent to 43.8 percent. But it could continue its coalition with the FDP. In the 1994 elections, this majority was even narrower. The CDU/CSU won just 41.4 percent of the vote.

The Greens, however, marched back into parliament with 7.3 percent of the vote in 1994. This result topped even the FDP, which dipped from 11 percent to 6.9 percent.

1998: The beginning of SPD-Green power

The federal elections in 1998 represented a true break in postwar German history. For the first time ever, the change in government forced all parties of the old government into the opposition.

After 16 years in power, Helmut Kohl had to step down. The CDU/CSU lost more than six percentage points in the election and only won 35.1 percent of the vote.

"We ran to win this election and we lost," said Kohl at the time. "It is quite clear that the Social Democrats won this election. There is nothing to discuss about this result."

The SPD won just under 41 percent of votes, its second best result since 1949. By then the Greens had joined forces with the eastern Buendnis 90 to become one party, with which the SPD quickly formed a coalition, and Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder was elected Germany's seventh chancellor.

Schroeder hugs Lafontaine
After being confirmed chancellor on Oct. 27, 1998, Schroeder thanks his party colleagues, Oskar Lafontaine and Rudolf ScharpingImage: dpa

2002: The beginning of the end?

Four years later, the comfortable SPD/Green majority considerably dipped, winning only a slight majority over CDU/CSU and FDP in the 2002 elections. The still positive outcome was partially attributed to the Schroeder government's successful crisis management during the 2002 flooding of the rivers Elbe and Oder in eastern Germany.

But above all, Berlin's "no" to the US-led war in Iraq was a significant reason for voters to stick with Schroeder.

This popular backing waned, however, with the social and labor market reforms which the government introduced in spring 2003. The SPD in particular was held responsible for the cuts in Germany's social net. The party lost a number of state elections, including its stronghold North Rhine-Westphalia. In May 2005, the last SPD-Green coalition government on a state level was voted out. On the same day Chancellor Schroeder called for snap elections.

2005: The first female chancellor

The election in 2005 failed to produce a clear winner. With the SPD polling 34.2 and the CDU/CSU bringing home 35.2 percent, neither party had a big enough mandate to create a coalition with their preferred partners. After a three-week battle between Gerhard Schroeder and Christian Democrat party chief Angela Merkel for political supremacy, their two parties agreed to form a "grand coalition" together. Merkel came out on top as the first woman to become German chancellor.

She started off on a wave of popularity that continued to grow as she launched a tour of diplomacy to Germany's traditional allies, France, Britain and the United States, and brokered a European Union budget deal all within months of taking over the chancellery.

Afghanistan loomed large throughout the government's tenure, with the partners steadfast in their insistence that German soldiers remain part of the NATO-led mission to stabilize the country.

The grand coalition government was also marked by the global financial crisis. In late 2008 taxpayers shelled out 100 billion euros for the bailout of a single bank, Hypo Real Estate, as they saw their country lurch into recession.

Merkel and Steinmeier
Merkel and Steinmeier have ruled together but would rather notImage: AP

The government has hardly been challenged by the small opposition parties in the Bundestag. Rather, the grand coalition has been its own worst enemy, and opinion polls rule out a continuation. Instead, Angela Merkel is likely to win another term as chancellor at the helm of a CDU/CSU coalition with the free-market liberal FDP. The Social Democrats and their candidate for chancellor, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will probably end up back in the role of opposition for the first time in over a decade.

Author: Heinz Dylong / Nancy Isenson
Editor: Rina Goldenberg