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The 2002 Bundestag Elections (September 25, 2002)

Writing for an American audience, German author Peter Schneider describes the governing red-green coalition’s marginal victory in the 2002 Bundestag elections. (Schneider, it should be noted, has taught as a guest lecturer at various American universities and is close to the SPD.) Given the public’s widespread dissatisfaction with the government, he was surprised by the outcome of the election. He attributes the coalition’s victory to two factors: Schröder’s leadership in confronting the flood disaster in the Eastern part of the country and his definitive rejection of the Iraq war.

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Schroder's Little Win

As an observer of the German body politic I have been reminded of the inert patients in the film "Awakenings" – thanks to a new drug, they regain their old vitality for a brief moment, only to sink back into paralysis.

The floods that devastated Germany this summer unleashed an amazing burst of energy, organizational efficiency and community spirit. Hundreds of thousands rallied to volunteer and slogged away to the point of collapse, without asking the trade unions for permission; those not immediately affected stood in line at the bank to donate money. German virtues long forgotten suddenly reappeared, and this time for what was indisputably a good cause.

Just before the election, however, the same people seemed clueless – masters of the hangover even before the banquet. The biggest party appeared to be that of the undecided and those who had decided they wouldn't vote at all.

The prevailing mood was that nothing substantial would change no matter who joined the race. Articles appeared in foreign newspapers expressing concern about German apathy. "What's going on with the Germans?" they asked. "A nation that's slipped to last place in Europe in all major rankings is making no serious effort to pull itself out of the mire. Do the Germans need a state of emergency before they can act?"

At least the election has been decided. By the slimmest of margins, the Social Democratic Party-Green Party coalition led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroder will stay in office, buoyed at the end by a flood and Mr. Schroder's stand against America's Iraq policy.

To put the complicated election results in simple terms, Germans were prepared to stick with Mr. Schroder but they wanted to punish his party, the Social Democrats, which they think has been too tentative in reforming Germany's sclerotic welfare state. At the same time, Germans decided to encourage the Christian Democratic Union, the opposition party that is more disposed to push the reforms, without embracing its leader, Edmund Stoiber, an embodiment of the inflexible, dour German. "Do something, even something painful," Germans are saying. "But try to do it so that we won't notice." In the end, the Social Democrats lost 42 seats while the Christian Democrats picked up 3 seats in the 603-member German Parliament.

Obviously, election results like these aren't very conducive to feelings of triumph among the voters or the parties.

People know, or at least sense, that what wasn't on the ballot was a release from the inaction that has paralyzed Germany for 20 years. There is a mesh of laws and regulations that would make the Lilliputians who immobilized Gulliver green with envy. We are saddled with an enormous bureaucracy (one civil servant – who cannot be fired – per every 14 adults), a rigid labor market, an outmoded educational system, a collapsing health service and a social security apparatus that makes a mockery of basic arithmetic: after all, how can more and more longer-living pensioners expect to draw the same benefits while less and less money is going into the public coffers?

But anyone who raises his sword to cut even one of the thousands of bonds faces an indomitable opponent: the unions. Though Germany's trade unions originally organized in order to protect the disenfranchised, they now only protect themselves. The unions have become powerful clubs dedicated to the privileges of their member-laborers against everyone else. They heed only one law of bargaining: always more, never less! No one, it seems, can govern against the unions. As a result, both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats tried to curry their favor in this election as well.

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