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Art of governing

May 30, 2011

Chancellor Angela Merkel won national elections in 2009 with the pledge that she would extend the lifespan of the country's nuclear power plants. Her about-face raises quite a few questions, says DW's Peter Stützle.


This must be the art of governing: when faced with adverse public opinion, quickly change direction and let a committee not represented in the constitution bless your political U-turn.

Under the previous Social Democrat-Green coalition led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the government decided on a nuclear phaseout - in accordance with the majority of the population and against the opposition's plans under Angela Merkel.

Merkel then succeeded Schröder as chancellor in 2005, but in her coalition government with the Social Democrats, she couldn't do anything to change the phaseout plan. She made it clear that once she was in a position to form a majority with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), she would not build new nuclear power plants but extend the lifespan of existing plants. She got her majority and in March, the corresponding law went into effect.

But in the wake of the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the rejection of nuclear energy by the German public has become even more pronounced. Bearing that and a series of important state elections in mind, Merkel and other leading Christian Democrat and FDP political leaders have instead done an about-face, swinging toward a rapid nuclear phaseout.

Willful decisions

Peter Stützle
DW's Peter StützleImage: DW

Of course, one could concede that whatever trust politicians had in engineers' abilities to handle all conceivable accidents has in fact been shaken by Fukushima.

But it's unsettling to find that all of a sudden, every point in favor of nuclear energy now counts for nothing, that politicians are all marching in the same direction, with no opposition. As if the institutions that, according to the constitution, are meant to agonize over these sorts of political decisions had been left out of the process altogether.

In March, ahead of 2011's first state election, the federal government installed an ethics commission where distinguished scientific and social leaders pondered the responsibility of such a rapid phaseout. A welcome debate, had it been taken seriously, but it was only window dressing. The night before the commission submitted its report, the coalition committee had already made detailed decisions concerning the nuclear phaseout.

The coalition committee is made up of a handful of political leaders chosen from the ranks of the governing coalition parties, and is nowhere represented in the constitution. The government and parliament, both ultimately responsible for passing legislation, will simply implement what has already been decided.

Formally, that is in accordance with the constitution. In reality, they are ruling by decree. And surprisingly, hardly anyone in this country is upset about it.

Author: Peter Stützle / db
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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