This chapter was one of the most difficult of my entire political career. I kept reliving the days and weeks leading up to the moment when the path was free to call for new elections through a vote of confidence in the Bundestag. One thing was absolutely obvious and perfectly clear to me: I had to hold fast to the policies I had been pursuing. Agenda 2010 was a policy course, and abandoning it was unthinkable to me and would have been catastrophic for the SPD. If the pressure of relevant sections of the party or the faction had forced me to abandon it, my resignation would have been unavoidable. That was the situation. That is how I saw it, and that is why I approached Franz Müntefering with the idea of holding new elections.
During the intensive talks we conducted after losing the election in Schleswig-Holstein, I said to him: “If you’re absolutely certain that you’ll have a majority for the Agenda policy in your own faction up to the very end of this legislative session in 2006, then we won’t need new elections. But if you can’t guarantee that, then we have to push for new elections. That’s the only way to avoid being forced to step down, with all of the negative consequences it would have for the future development of the SPD.”
All the scenes from these days and weeks continued to run through my head as I paced the small room, strode into the dining room, and opened the door to the terrace, stepping outside to look out, once more, at Berlin at night; and with the Reichstag and the liberty bell [on Schöneberg City Hall] before my eyes, I thought about these two symbols of a series of events that had given this country, once so degraded by the Nazi period, a new chance to arrive at the place where we belong: in the alliance of enlightened and democratic nations.
And again I experienced, and still experience, the disillusioning insight that this 21st century does not seem to be living up to the hopes that accompanied the fall of the Iron Curtain. It will likely be a century that will place high demands on reason and on the democratic world’s ability to arrive at a peaceful balance. More than ever before, social equalization will assume a global dimension. The previous hegemony of the Western industrial world has long since become a thing of the past. Others have closed ranks and entered the world market as competitors. All of our policies for reform and renewal were a reaction to this global challenge. Such thoughts came to me as I stood on the terrace of the chancellery, eight stories above the ground, with a view of the backdrop of this city and its history, during the most horrid chapter of which the country and its people had shown themselves to be so detached from the world, so destructive and at the same time so self-destructive.
On those nights, I kept thinking about Election Sunday in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). Franz Müntefering and I agreed that we would base our decision on how to proceed on the outcome of the elections. We met on May 22, 2005, at around noon in my office in the chancellery, and braced ourselves for what was to come. And even though we were prepared, the figures we finally received still shocked us. The results were catastrophic for the SPD. The CDU won a very convincing victory in the formerly red [i.e. Social Democratic] stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia with 44.8 percent of the vote. The SPD only got 37.1 percent of the vote, and Alliance 90/The Greens had a respectable outcome of 6.2 percent. The FDP also ended up with 6.2 percent.
Franz had prepared two alternative scenarios. One possible response to the NRW election was to reshuffle the cabinet; the other was to call for new elections. Gazing out at the Berlin sky at night, I recounted our conversation: “Franz, what do you think? Will we manage it? If so, we won’t need new elections. I’m thinking first and foremost of the party. My concerns about myself are only secondary; I’ll be fine.” And he responded: “I’m not sure.” It is the historical truth; together we decided to push for new elections.
The alternative that I had to face, namely the possibility of failing within my own party and having to step down, seemed unfeasible to both Franz and me. This scenario would not have improved the situation for the SPD. So new elections it was – this was the political conclusion we drew from the election fiasco, and Franz Müntefering announced the decision to the press on the evening of May 22, as we had agreed. [ . . . ]
Source: Gerhard Schröder, Entscheidungen. Mein Leben in der Politik [Decisions. My Life in Politics]. Hamburg: Hoffman and Campe, 2006, pp. 374-79.
Translation: Allison Brown