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Chancellor Democracy under Gerhard Schröder (July 26, 2002)

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Violations Become the Rule

The SPD chancellor has appointed a number of special commissioners (on issues from immigration to compensation for forced laborers to the foot-and-mouth-disease crisis team). The commissioners do not come from the coalition parties, and this is deliberate. An endless succession of consensus rounds presents members of the German Bundestag with faits accomplis. Voluntary commitments by professional associations, like in the health care system, do their share. As a result, the majority factions in parliament have less scope for action and their role has been limited to touching up details.

On November 16, 2001, Schröder used his power of initiative to combine the vote on the anti-terror deployment of the Bundeswehr with a vote of confidence. That was a first in the history of the Bundestag. The chancellor thereby transformed the disciplinary measures outlined in the constitution into a model of imperative mandate to maintain the chancellor’s majority: the directive to retain power was tied to a particular political vote.

A shift in emphasis between office and mandate is also on the horizon in the Bundesrat. Up to now, cooperation between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat usually operated under the conditions of a party state. Nevertheless, the minister presidents often felt more committed to their federal state than to their own party. Many of the majorities in the Bundesrat would not have been achieved otherwise. Cutting across all party lines, chancellors have forged a wide variety of coalitions with promises of a basically serious, and often financial, nature.

But up to now only Chancellor Schröder has acted outside of institutional mediation procedures. July 14, 2000, the date on which he pushed his taxation package through the Bundesrat, marked a turning point. Schröder’s coup was possible because – contrary to the rules – an essential part of the voting package was not published before the start of debate; instead, it was agreed on over the phone before the bill was even drafted. The ad-hoc majority for the tax reform package in the Bundesrat had only come together the night before the session. The chancellor disregarded the fundamental purpose of mandatory prior publication: the creation of a public forum. A new style [of leadership] also became apparent in the Bundesrat vote on the Immigration Act in March 2002. Consequently, the federal president felt obliged to issue a reprimand for the first time in the history of the republic.* Furthermore, Schröder also violates everyday government rules in Berlin through his increasing presidentialization of the political process. As a powerful government headquarters, the chancellor’s office compromises the federal government’s departmental principle. It was only in the 1990s that Kohl achieved what Schröder has silently accomplished in just three years’ time: not even the smallest initiative of any department can be made public without first receiving the blessing of the chancellor’s office.

High ministerial turnover isn’t the only distinctive feature of presidential cabinets. (And Gerhard Schröder holds the record with eight ministers.) The government chief’s deliberate distancing of himself from cabinet members and his efforts to inflate his image as a statesman at the cost of his coalition partner are further signs of a presidential style of government in a parliamentary-representative system. Schröder’s parliamentary strength is linked to his clear-cut majority in the Bundestag. In contrast to Kohl, he doesn’t have to be all that considerate of his coalition partner. He’s a player who accepts coalition partners – whether in Hanover or Berlin – merely as an accessory to his prerogative to set strong policy guidelines. His chancellorship has been characterized – at least since the departure of [Oskar] Lafontaine, the architect of the red-green coalition – as having a purely instrumental relationship to its Green partner. This has to do with Schröder’s understanding of government action. The chancellor is first and foremost the head of the government; only secondarily is he the leader of his party. Kohl’s power was based in his party. As a populist, on the other hand, Schröder has made a virtue out of the deficiency of his insufficient closeness to the SPD base. Whenever necessary, he uses his telegenic pep to stimulate party bodies from the outside. His secretary general then translates the plans of the chancellor-president for the rest of the party.

“Sofa government,” informal personal consultations between the chancellor and hand-picked spin doctors give the non-elected members of his staff more influence than the members of the parliamentary faction, the cabinet, or the coalition roundtables. This trend toward presidentialization was dramatically intensified by the terrorist acts of September 11 [2001].

The presidentialization and delegitimation of constitutional organs goes hand in hand with a plebiscitary transformation of the Berlin Republic. Schröder acts like a multi-option pragmatist and “chancellor of the day.” First he figures out how much leeway he has in terms of content. If government proposals meet with public resistance, new options are sought. Problem-solving, usually in short-term alliances, also aims primarily at appealing to the public. One minute Schröder appeases the traditional SPD battalion with the new Works Council Constitution Act [Betriebsverfassungsgesetz]; another minute he woes businessmen with the green-card initiative. All of this stems from a pragmatism of the moment that serves to maintain power and resolve conflicts but seems totally void of tradition in the sense of the Social Democratic milieu.

* On March 22, 2002, the Bundesrat narrowly passed the Immigration Act by a margin of 35-34. The decisive votes were cast by the Brandenburg state delegation, which consisted of two representatives, one from the SPD and one from the CDU. The SDP delegate voted in favor of the law; the CDU delegate voted against it. Since the constitution requires that federal states vote unanimously, Brandenburg’s minister president, Manfred Stolpe (SPD), was called in. He declared that his state was voting in favor of the law. The CDU protested the passage of the law; the party voiced its complaints to Federal President Johannes Rau and urged him not to sign the law. The Schröder-led government, on the other hand, pressured him to sign it. Rau reprimanded both parties for their behavior and expressed his disapproval of the manner in which the law had been passed – eds.

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