The oft-used term “chancellor democracy” points to the important role of the federal chancellor in the parliamentary system of government in the Federal Republic. Although the head of the government is elected by the parliament and not the entire electorate, Bundestag elections are still considered a benchmark of approval or disapproval of a chancellor. In early 1990, many people were convinced that the sitting chancellor, Helmut Kohl, would not win the next election for himself and the CDU, despite his incumbent advantage. However, his resolve during the negotiations on German unification paved the way for his reelection in the first all-German elections in December 1990. The campaign and his subsequent years in office were shaped by the issue of German unification. In 1994, the CDU/CSU and FDP coalition was reelected, but only by a slim margin. After Kohl’s sixteen-year chancellorship – the longest in history – voters opted for a change of government in 1998.
Praise for Helmut Kohl’s chancellorship focuses mostly on his achievements in foreign and European policy. As CDU party chair from 1973 to 1998, Kohl modernized the party and made significant contributions to its successes at the local, state, and federal level. Kohl was a mastermind and a powerbroker who kept a close hand on all party matters and who used his network of personal contacts to consolidate his position of power; his departure left the party with the difficult task of renewing itself and finding new talent. Kohl’s lax handling of CDU finances, which came to light during the CDU donation scandal of 1999-2000, not only ended his political career but also propelled the party into a serious crisis.
The Bundestag elections in the fall of 1998 were the first elections in the history of the Federal Republic in which the future political composition of the government coalition was decided by the electorate, not by negotiations among the political parties. For the first time, a left-of-center coalition was formed between the SPD and Alliance 90/the Greens at the national level. The government change ushered in a generational change. A good many of those who entered the corridors of power were either part of the 1968 generation or had been influenced by it.
Gerhard Schröder’s seven-year chancellorship was marked by growing unemployment, the struggle to reform economic and social systems, and the ongoing redefinition of Germany’s international role. After four turbulent years of fluctuating government approval ratings, the red-green coalition barely stayed in power after the elections in the fall of 2002. After Schröder’s Agenda 2010, a package of reforms to reorganize the labor and social system, cost him the support of both voters and many of his party colleagues, he called for early elections in May 2005. Schröder’s skill in dealing with the media earned him the epithet “media chancellor”; the growing centralization of power in the Federal Chancellery continued during his administration.
The two major parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, received a total of 91.6 percent of the “second votes” (that is, the party votes that largely determine the distribution of seats in the Bundestag) in 1976, but their share of the vote has decreased successively ever since. In 1990, the two parties received a total of 79.3 percent of the vote; in the Bundestag election in September 2005, this figure dropped to 69.4 percent. In 2009, their share of the vote sank to a record low of 56.8 percent. Both parties claim to represent the center of the party spectrum, and election results from 2002 and 2005 showed the CDU/CSU and the SPD running neck and neck.
The Bundestag elections in September 2005 ended in a stalemate that ruled out all party coalitions that had previously been envisioned, resulting in the formation of a grand coalition between the CDU/CSU and the SPD (see Chapter 14). When Angela Merkel was elected chancellor in November 2005, she became the first woman and the first East German politician to head the federal government. Her policy statement took up the reform agenda of the previous years. While the federal government’s main political priorities have shifted only a bit, Merkel’s pragmatic and cooperative style of leadership has been an obvious change from her predecessor. Merkel remained in power after the September 2009 elections, having weathered an election campaign that was universally described as dull and without substance; afterwards, the CDU/CSU’s coalition partner changed from the SPD to the FDP (see Chapter 14).