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Looking Back at the 2002 Election

DW staff (win)

The looming war in Iraq and devastating floods in eastern Germany helped Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Red-Green coalition government to secure a second term in office by a hair-thin margin in 2002.

Schröder and Fischer managed to continue the Red-Green coalitionImage: AP

On Sept. 22, 2002, it first looked as if Schröder had lost the election to his conservative challenger, Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber of the Christian Social Union (CSU).

Earlier in the year, Schröder's chances for re-election had looked even dimmer. But talk of a possible war in Iraq and the chancellor's vehement opposition to German participation in such an undertaking swayed voters towards the Social Democrats.

Hochwasser in Grimma
The 2002 floods in eastern Germany caused billions in damagesImage: AP

The floods that hit large parts of eastern Germany in August 2002 further helped Schröder in gaining ground among voters and come across as a decisive leader.

But on election night, Stoiber was already celebrating victory when the final vote tally showed that the ruling coalition would be able to continue. Turnout was relatively low, with only 79.1 percent of eligible voters turning up to cast their ballots -- 3.1 percentage points lower than in 1998.

Edmund Stoiber mit V-Zeichen
Edmund Stoiber is sure of victory on election night 2002Image: AP

Both big parties, Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Stoiber's CSU and its Christian Democratic Union (CDU) sister organization, won 38.5 percent of the votes.

Small parties decisive

It therefore came down to the smaller parties: the SPD's coalition partner, the Greens, and the CDU/CSU's likely ally, the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). The Greens got 8.6 percent of the votes while the FDP only came fourth with 7.4 percent.

The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor party to eastern Germany's former communists, failed to enter parliament, gaining a mere 4 percent of the vote. It only secured two directly elected mandates.

Vertrauensfrage Bundestag Bundeskanzler
View of Germany's parliamentImage: AP

The SPD also received four extra seats in parliament due to Germany's election system, which allows parties to retain so-called "overhang seats" if more candidates win constituencies directly than the party would get because of its overall percentage of the vote. The CDU won one extra seat. (For a detailed explanation of the election system, please read "A Dummy's Guide to German Elections" that's attached below.)

As a result, the seats in parliament were distributed as follows: The SPD became the strongest faction, with 251 seats, followed by the CDU/CSU with 248 members. The Greens held 55 and the FDP 47 mandates.

Narrow majority

This initially gave the ruling coalition four seats more than required to secure the majority of 302 votes in the 603-seat parliament. The margin has narrowed since then as one SPD parliamentarian died and another resigned. Both held "overhang" mandates that were not replaced. That's why the governing coalition now has 304 seats -- just three more than necessary.

Vertrauensfrage Bundestag Gerhard Schröder winkt
Schröder leaving parliament after losing the vote of confidence on July 1.Image: dpa - Bildfunk

It's one of the reasons cited by Schröder to back his call for early elections as he claims that he can no longer rely on a safe parliamentary majority.

Back in 2002, his challenger thought such a situation would come about much earlier. On election night, Stoiber said the red-green government would fail within a year due to its slim majority:

"I assure you that within a year I'll be able to build a new government."