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Chancellor Democracy under Gerhard Schröder (July 26, 2002)

According to political scientist Karl-Rudolf Korte, under Gerhard Schröder, the Federal Republic’s “chancellor democracy” [Kanzlerdemokratie] was becoming increasingly similar to a presidential system. Korte attributed this to the centralization of power in the chancellor’s office, the circumvention of parliament by means of consensus rounds, and the increased role of the media in politics.

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In the Presentation Democracy
Schröder’s Style of Government leaves its Mark on the Berlin Republic

In his first policy statement, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder described political leadership as “modern opportunity management.” The course of the legislative period confirms his pronouncement. Schröder governs as though the polls were open every day: he is sensitive to changing public opinion, mindful of swing voters, a pragmatist of the moment.

After four years of red-green [i.e., the coalition between the SPD and the Greens], the so-called Berlin Republic has proven to be more than a chimera of the features pages. “Berlin Republic” denotes a structural new beginning that is changing the political system dramatically. Chancellor Schröder is transforming a representative democracy into a presidential republic. The retrofitting of the political system can be interpreted as an efficient governing strategy in a media-oriented, excitement-fuelled democracy. Additionally, persistent violations of the rules of parliamentary democracy are undermining the foundations of the Bonn Republic. Sometimes the rules are openly and deliberately broken; sometimes they are compromised more subtly, for example through reinterpretation.

Gerhard Schröder ascended in the role of the rebel. His rattling of the fence of the chancellery early on* offered a foretaste of the style of a leader who systematically violates political boundaries and rules. In the SPD, Schröder criticized the establishment and the chairmen to the point where there was no one left who wanted to compete with him. When he finally became chairman himself, the party organization initially stood in the way of a further centralization of power within the chancellor’s office. It was the introduction of a secretary general – patterned after the CDU/CSU – that finally created the prerequisite for Schröder to expand his power. He broke away from the traditional Social Democratic platform and then broke with traditional SPD structures, which was also a subtle way of violating rules and boundaries.

Even more important is his treatment of the Bundestag and Bundesrat [Federal Council]. The usual procedures for formulating opinions and making decisions in these parliamentary organs have been changed or reinterpreted during the current legislative period. That affects the very substance of our constitution. Expanding executive control over parliamentary processes shifts power relations. Schröder’s democracy is a negotiation democracy. Interest groups are brought together and committed to a consensus – outside of the Bundestag. Various networks are supposed to prevent decisions from being blocked. Whoever brings about such a consensus exercises power in a gentle way. The chancellor satisfies the desires of the people; and he cultivates and intensifies the corporatist style of his predecessor [Helmut Kohl] with roundtable discussions, alliances for work or ad hoc coalitions, ethics councils, and conversations in the chancellor’s office.

* In 1982, after a visit to a bar, Gerhard Schröder walked by the chancellery, rattled the fence, and proclaimed, “I want to get in here” [“Ich will da rein”]. Sixteen years later, he succeeded – eds.

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