New Times, 15 August 1997
After 15 years in power, German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s centre-right coalition government is showing signs of exhaustion. The economy is faltering: unemployment is more than 4 million and the Deutschmark is dwindling in value. The government is desperately trying to reduce its debts to qualify for European economic and monetary union – but its enthusiasm for EMU is not shared by the voters or the Bundesbank, which earlier this year humiliated the government by refusing to allow it to use new estimates of the value of its gold reserves to make the debts look smaller.
Key elements of the government’s legislative programme, most notably its plans for reforming the tax system, have been scuppered by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) majority in the federal upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which comprises representatives of Germany’s 16 regional states, the Lander. Relations among the three parties in the ruling coalition, Kohl’s Christian Democratic Union, the Bavarian Christian Social Union and the liberal Free Democratic Party are at best fractious.
Rivals to succeed Kohl as the leader of the CDU/CSU are already jockeying for position.
In other words, everything suggests that it is time for a change.
But whether the SPD can capitalise on Kohl’s misfortunes remains to be seen. Although it is running at around 40 per cent in the opinion polls, compared with the 36 per cent of the vote it won in the last Bundestag election in October 1994, it is poorly led, divided over Europe and unsure about how far the ‘German model’ of the social market economy needs to be reformed.
Its current leader is Oskar Lafontaine, the rhetorically left-leaning Saarland premier who unexpectedly ousted the ineffectual Rudolf Scharping at the party’s 1995 conference (although Scharping remains the leader of the SPD in the Bundestag). Lafontaine was the SPD candidate for the chancellorship in the 1990 federal election, and he desperately wants to have another go at Kohl in 1998.
But he has not given the SPD a clear sense of direction, and he faces a strong challenge for the party’s nomination as candidate for the chancellorship from Gerhard Schröder, the Lower Saxony premier.
Schröder is a right-wing populist in SPD terms who has taken a sceptical position on EMU, arguing that it should be delayed if the convergence criteria in the Maastricht treaty prove too tough. Most of the smart money is currently on Schröder – although that could easily change before the party makes its choice early next year.
Meanwhile, the SPD’s most likely coalition partners in government if Kohl does not make a comeback, the Greens, are enjoying a period of sustained popularity unprecedented since unification, with ratings in the polls of 11 per cent (compared with 7 per cent of the vote in 1994). They have long since metamorphosed into a mature and credible parliamentary party, and in Joschka Fischer, their leader in the Bundestag and a convinced proponent of greater European integration, they have far and away the most impressive politician of the German centre-left.
Green optimists believe that they might take as much as 13 or 14 per cent of the vote in the general election.
The first test of the long election campaign for both SPD and Greens comes next month (September) in Land elections in Hamburg – but more important by far are next spring’s elections in Schroeder’s home state of Lower Saxony, which will play a crucial role in determining his chances of becoming Kohl’s SPD challenger.
No one is yet counting any chickens, however. Kohl is the great survivor of contemporary European politics – and it would be no surprise come next September if he manages a fifth consecutive victory.