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Kohl’s Germany: The Beginning of the End?

Second, the economic upturn in west Germany and the signs of lasting economic recovery in east Germany came just in time to save Kohl’s bacon. Napoleon famously asked about one of his generals the single, all-important question: “Is he lucky?” Helmut Kohl is lucky. In the west, he benefited from the familiar “feel-good factor” at this point in the economic cycle. In the east, it was something more dramatic. Here he had been first adored and then reviled for his famous promise of 1990 to create “flowering landscapes” within a few years. In fact, the transformation has been much slower and more painful than he predicted. Some 14 percent of the east German labor force is still unemployed, and another 4 percent hold artificial, government-subsidized jobs.

Nonetheless, if you travel through east Germany today it is one big building site. In a bold move, Helmut Kohl went back to every place where he had campaigned in the elections of 1990 and said, in effect, “I told you so.” And enough people felt their own lives had in fact improved. So in the east, the CDU got the most votes—more than 38 percent to the SPD’s 32 percent. Altogether, any claim or perception that the PDS is the “voice of the east” must be qualified by the plain fact that 80 percent of the east German vote went to the established parties and Alliance 90/Greens.

The third reason Helmut Kohl won is that he managed ever so slightly to tar the Social Democrats with the Communist brush. They foolishly gave, him the opportunity to do so, by forming a minority government in one of the east German states, Sachsen-Anhalt, in coalition with the Alliance 90/Greens but depending on the votes (or abstention) of the PDS for its continuance in office. Aha, said Kohl, here is a fundamental break with the continuity of the democratic politics of the Federal Republic: a Social Democratic government that is there only on sufferance from the PDS. And adapting a phrase of the early postwar Social Democratic leader Kurt Schumacher, he described the PDS as “red-painted fascists.” This, Kohl said to the voters, is what you might get if you vote for the SPD. It was a tactical, some might even say a cynical argument, and it is difficult to judge its precise effect. Perhaps in east Germany it even won the PDS a few more protest votes. But I think Kohl knew exactly what he was doing.

With this single argument he artfully polarized a contest in which, up to that point, the differences between the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats had been very blurred—so much so, in fact, that wits had combined the two leading candidates for chancellor into an imaginary “Chancellor Kohlping.” At the same time, by summoning up the ghost of “red-painted fascists” in a popular front with the SPD, he activated some deep-seated cold war reactions and fears, reinforcing the feeling that it was safer to stick with the devil you know. Keine Experimente! (No Experiments!) to quote a famous Christian Democratic slogan from earlier in the history of the Federal Republic.

Yet it was still a close-run thing. In fact, the coalition only got its working majority of ten thanks to another peculiarity of the German electoral system. I said earlier—choosing my words carefully—that the percentage of second votes won by a party “mainly determines” the number of seats it has in parliament. However, if a party gets more direct candidates elected in a particular state (Land) than it would be entitled to from its proportion of the “second votes” in that state, then those extra members enter the Bundestag as so-called “overhang mandates.” The CDU/CSU got twelve “overhang mandates” against the SPD’s four, thus significantly increasing its majority.

Kohl himself immediately pointed out that Helmut Schmidt had governed for four years after 1976 with a majority of ten, and that Willy Brandt had come to power in 1969 with a majority of twelve. Yet Kohl knows as well as anyone that Brandt’s majority was then pared down to almost nothing by defections in protest at his Ostpolitik. Narrow majorities sit uneasily with bold policies. And Kohl’s position now is significantly weaker than Brandt’s or Schmidt’s was then. As this article goes to press, there is even speculation that Kohl might not get the absolute majority of votes in the Bundestag needed to elect him chancellor first time round (although the constitution also provides for a second round, in which a chancellor can be elected by a qualified majority). Yet if we assume he is returned, after what are sure to be difficult coalition negotiations, he still faces major new constraints.

For a start, there is the sickness of the Free Democrats. The FDP is a small party that has been in government for all but eight of the forty-five years of the Federal Republic. In the Museum of the History of the Federal Republic you can see one of its earliest election posters, describing it as “the golden center” between red and black, left and right. Over the years, it has become accustomed to being the effective arbiter of German politics. Helmut Kohl originally came to power in 1982 because the FDP switched coalition partners in mid-term, from Helmut Schmidt’s embattled SPD to the CDU. A Federal Republic without the FDP would be “a different republic,” the party’s current leader, Klaus Kinkel, declared in his last pre-election speech: a bold claim for any party leader to make, yet with a grain of truth.

Even under Hans-Dietrich Genscher, foreign minister between 1974 and 1992, the FDP had constantly to struggle to establish its separate identity, and to keep above the 5 percent hurdle in federal and state elections. Genscher quite deliberately organized the switch of coalition partners back in 1982, because in voters’ eyes the FDP seemed to be becoming indistinguishable from the SPD, which itself was in trouble. Now the FDP has the opposite problem; but even more so. It has only got back into the Bundestag because more than half a million CDU voters gave their second votes tactically to the FDP, in order to bring back Helmut Kohl as leader of the present center-right coalition. Indeed, by the end of the campaign the FDP was openly pleading for such tactical voting. One poster showed a picture of the retired but still very popular Genscher playing chess. Underneath was the message: “A clever chess-move, second vote for the FDP!”

According to one remarkable poll, 63 percent of those who voted for the FDP named the CDU as their preferred party. According to another poll, just 17 percent of those asked saw the FDP as an independent party, while 72 percent saw it only as a partner of the CDU/CSU. Kinkel has not established himself as a credible successor to Hans-Dietrich Genscher in the role of foreign minister. Their economics minister, Günter Rexrodt, is not the powerful personification of hard-nosed “Manchester liberal” economics that the former party leader Otto Count Lambsdorff was, appealing to the entrepreneurial middle class which has been a vital part of the FDP’s traditional constituency. At the same time, the party has failed to strengthen its other wing, identified with more left-liberal positions on law and order, immigration, or education. Most serious of all, this loss of identity, credibility, and leadership has resulted in the party losing its place in most state parliaments. On the day of the Bundestag election it failed to get back into another three state parliaments.

This deep crisis of the FDP does not just mean that the party will be riven with recriminations and worry about its own future. (The internal squabbling started on the very night of the elections.) It also means that some in the FDP will start to think that the party can be saved only by once again changing coalition partners in mid-term. The option here would be a so-called “traffic-light coalition,” consisting of SPD, FDP, and Alliance 90/Greens (red-yellow-green). Some great “issues of principle” could surely be found for abandoning the FDP’s current partner, just as Genscher found them in 1982. Whether this would again save the turncoat party, or finally condemn it to extinction, is a very open question—but the possibility will haunt the coalition Kohl is now trying to reconstitute.

Meanwhile, the Social Democrats have emerged not only strengthened in the Bundestag but also with a clear majority in the federal upper house, the Bundesrat, whose political balance is determined by the composition of state governments. This means that now more than ever the government will need to negotiate its legislative proposals in advance with the SPD, in order to get them through the upper house. Many talk in this connection of a “de facto Grand Coalition”—a reference to the “Grand Coalition” of Christian and Social Democrats, without the FDP, which ruled the Federal Republic between 1966 and 1969. The strengthening of the SPD increases the temptation for the FDP to play its old game of switching sides. On the other hand, the threat of the new constellation also strengthens the temptation for the Christian Democrats to preempt the FDP defection by themselves going for a Grand Coalition with the SPD.

To add to the uncertainty, there is the question of the succession to Helmut Kohl. Kohl himself has announced that this will be his last term as chancellor. But if he is to give his “crown prince,” Wolfgang schäuble, or anyone else, a chance to establish their authority before the next Bundestag election, in four years’ time, then he will presumably have to step down in 1997, at the latest. So irrespective of the political uncertainties, this is “the beginning of the end of the Kohl era”—because Kohl himself has proclaimed it so.


To describe Kohl as already a “lame duck” would, however, be once again to underestimate a man who has made a habit of being underestimated throughout his extraordinarily successful political career. Helmut Kohl is still the most formidable politician—and statesman—in Europe. He will not lightly be deflected from pursuing the last great task that he has set himself: to bind united Germany into a united Europe. In his view, the Maastricht treaty was a crucial step in that direction. The EU’s intergovernmental review conference, scheduled to begin in 1996, and already popularly billed as “Maastricht 2,” should be another one. Indeed, I should not be altogether surprised if somewhere at the back of his mind he does not cherish the idea of stepping down after completing “Maastricht 2,” having made the integration of Germany into something called the European Union “irreversible”—as he fondly hopes.

Nothing decisive will happen until the French presidential elections next spring, although there will be an intensive half-year of preparation and “policy planning” in the chancellor’s office, where German European policy is really made, and in the other chancelleries of Europe. But if he then has the right partner in Paris—and ironically enough the Socialist candidate Jacques Delors must be the favorite for the chancellor who is the scourge of socialism in Germany—then I suspect we will see some very challenging Franco-German initiatives for a further “deepening” of the EU.

These may recall, in substance if not in name, the CDU/CSU parliamentary party’s proposals for a “hard core” of the EU, consisting of France, Germany, and the Benelux countries. But the affronted reaction to those proposals, in Britain, in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe, is nothing compared to the furious row that will arise if that really seems to be French and German government policy, in the run-up to the intergovernmental conference. This alone would make it very difficult for Chancellor Kohl to realize his goal in the few years still available to him. Moreover, given the virtual collapse of the European Monetary System and the continued disparities between the economies of even the front-runners for European monetary union, the Maastricht timetable for monetary union looks increasingly unrealistic.

Within Germany itself, the business and banking community is, on the whole, notably unenthusiastic about European monetary union. Altogether, there is much more skepticism in Germany about a further deepening of the existing EU than there was before German unification—a skepticism notably articulated by the Bavarian prime minister Edmund Stoiber. Public opinion is increasingly indignant at Germany’s outsize net contribution to the EU’s budget, especially at a time when domestic budgets are being cut (although their leaders still try quietly to explain that this contribution is a small price to pay for keeping open Germany’s main export market). With Poland just five minutes’ flying time from Berlin, and German business already deeply committed to the Czech Republic, enlarging the EU to the east is also widely felt to be a higher priority for Germany.

Nonetheless, on the issue of “Europe” the political leadership of the Social Democrats is by and large on Kohl’s side. So while he may ultimately fail to realize his particular vision of “Europe,” because other European countries are not ready for it, or have other visions of their own, Germany’s politics, as they appear after the election, will probably not stop him trying—and trying very forcefully.

However, the goal most important to Chancellor Kohl personally is not the top priority of most of his compatriots. A poll result published on election night showed “foreign policy” at the very bottom of the list of issues that concerned the respondents. At the very top was job creation, then issues such as the restructuring of the welfare state, health care, and the environment. Despite its strong economic recovery, Germany has daunting domestic problems. It clearly has to cut budgets in order to reduce the public debt, which has soared to 2 trillion DM as a result of the costs of unification. It has to try to restore Germany’s competitive edge in world export markets, which probably involves doing some of the things that Britain and America did already in the 1980s—privatization, deregulation, reducing employment costs and the tax disincentives to enterprise. It has to work out what to do about long-term, structural unemployment: a problem common to all of Western Europe, but particularly sensitive because of the disproportionately larger number of long-term unemployed to be found in east Germany. Yet it is not only in east Germany that Gysi’s polemic against a “dismantling of the welfare state” will fall on fallow ground. And it is not only in west Germany that the Greens’ ecological and feminist concerns will further complicate the process.

With the results of the elections it is clear that, within the present political system, these issues can only be addressed by negotiation between all the established parties. In other words, this is the greatest test so far of what has long been the Federal Republic’s greatest strength: its ability to achieve change through consensus. If the attempt fails, then next time round we may yet see a more significant flight of disillusioned voters from the boring center to the interesting margins. Then, indeed, the Berlin republic might after all begin to look like Weimar.

But there we go again: worrying and warning, because of the ghosts in the museum. The Federal Republic has proved the Cassandras wrong so many times before. Let’s hope it can do so again. In any case, it’s worth remembering that when looking at Germany most people from most of the world, even from quite prosperous countries in the West, will exclaim: “If only we had your problems….”

November 3, 1994

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