At the 14 May regional elections in the Land of North-Rhine Westfalia, the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens suffered a blow at the ballot boxes, but they might continue to govern with a smaller majority. Both the SPD and the Greens lost some three per cent, but, for the latter, even this relative defeat – one of over a dozen – is much more devastating. They seem to have definitely lost their appeal, notably among those voters under the age of 30, who have again turned to centre and right-wing parties. Worst of all, from the Greens' perspective, this election result might endanger the existing coalition, which has never been too stable.
The opposition CDU, led by Jürgen Rüttgers, whose campaign against high-skilled labour immigration did not pay off, shed some per centage points (0.7 per cent). The big winners were the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), under their regional chairman, Jürgen Möllemann, who has long been known for his unfaltering, and at times embarrassing, greed for power but also for an unparalleled comeback capacity. A reserve officer of the Bundeswehr (German Army), he is commonly known as the "parachuter," after his favourite hobby. Under former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's centre-right coalition, he had been a federal minister and, for a short period, even vice chancellor.
Some years ago, he took over the ungrateful post of chairman of the downtrodden Free Democrat Landesverband (regional organisation) of North-Rhine Westfalia. Now, surprisingly even to most Free Democrats, he has taken the party, which had not been in the Landtag (Diet) since 1995, across the five per cent threshold, more than doubling its support (from four per cent to 9.8 per cent) and replacing the Greens as the third political force. The result was even better than Möllemann, who had been ridiculed during the campaign when he stubbornly called for "eight per cent," had expected. This, the best performance of any FDP body in a long time, places Möllemann in a position dreaded by many in his party. For years, he has been one of very few advocating, against the resolve of the right-wing federal party board, coalitions with the Social Democrats. This attitude might gain more support now. More directly, he is courting SPD Minister President Wolfgang Clement for a "social-liberal" coalition on the Lower Rhine.
This is what the Greens and those Social Democrats who support the existing coalition fear. Clement is known to be a staunch "right-wing" Social Democrat who does not regard the Greens as his natural partners. When he took over office two years ago – in a hidden coup d'etat - from Johannes Rau (now Federal President), he "inherited" a Red-Green cabinet. Ever since then, he has made it clear to everybody that he regards chairing this body as a daily personal sacrifice. Something of a "Blairite," Clement is an unlikely, yet close, ally of Bavaria's Edmund Stoiber (CSU - the Bavarian wing of the Christian Democrats). They share a penchant for technology-driven industry and tend to regard environmentalists as nasty obstacles to progress (the issue of maintaining traditional surface coal mining has several times almost broken up the Red-Green government).
North-Rhine Westfalia is the largest Land in terms of population, housing about one-fourth of all Germans (roughly 20 million). Until recently, when Bonn was still the capital city, it also hosted the seat of government. Ever since the end of the Second World War, the region has been ruled by the Social Democrats, who have had, throughout the 20th century, one of their national strongholds in the Ruhr region, the industrial powerhouse of Germany.
For all these reasons, elections here are regarded as "test elections" for Berlin. The Red-Green coalition forged in Düsseldorf in 1995 was seen as the predecessor of the federal elections of 1998. Should the coalition break up now, this would be taken by everyone as a disastrous omen for Gerhard Schröder's national government.
Thus, it was an open secret from the moment that the preliminary election results became known that Chancellor Schröder would exert strong pressure on Clement to stick with the Greens. Few people doubt that, basically, the Minister President would prefer a liberal coalition partner more open to supply-side-oriented modernisation. But even Clement can hardly afford to confront the chancellor and federal party chairman in such a brusque manner.
Regional SPD party chairman Günter Müntefering, one of Schröder's closest collaborators, ostentatiously announced immediate negotiations with the Greens. However, he has started squeezing the Greens – who now seem to have to sell themselves "cheaper" – for concessions, that is, for more "business-friendly" policies. He is suspected of wanting to oust Green Environment Minister Bärbel Höhl, his most hard-headed opponent in the cabinet. But the Greens have just set out to renew their political dignity by going back to some of the basics of their platform; they are unlikely to concede very much right now. But, after all, Clement has lost three per cent of the vote, leaving Schröder, again, unrivalled in his party. So, his will is likely to prevail.
A poll taken by German TV (ZDF Politbarometer) right after the North-Rhine Westfalian elections showed that the ruling Red-Green coalition in Berlin would not get a majority now. The SPD received 40 per cent (a drop of two per cent) while the Greens stayed at six per cent. The opposition parties scored slightly better than a month before: CDU/CSU 37 per cent (an increase of one per cent), FDP seven per cent (an increase of one per cent). Five per cent preferred the Communists (PDS) or other parties. But, presently, 21 per cent would explicitly favour a centre-right government, while the existing Red-Green government got the support of only 19 per cent. Interestingly, almost as many (15 per cent) advocated a social-liberal coalition.
High savings – but for whom?
The Red-Green majority in the Bundestag has adopted a long-expected law on tax reform. The reform package of Finance Minister Hans Eichel (SPD), who has at the same time reduced public expenses drastically, is to reduce the tax burden on citizens and enterprises by an aggregate DEM 45 billion (EUR 22.5 billion) by the year 2005. Specifically, corporate taxes are to be limited to 25 per cent, and the maximum income tax rate is to be lowered from 51 to 45 per cent. Corporate income from the sale of capital shares will be tax-free. The costs of the reform, which will mean a lower tax revenue during the forthcoming years, might be made smoother by an expected federal revenue surplus for 2000 of about DEM 5.1 billion (EUR 2.55 billion), of which DEM 1.8 billion (EUR 0.9 billion) will be at the Finance Minister's direct disposal (the rest goes to the Länder and municipalities).
The "Blairite" move has come under fire from both sides. A number of left-wing Social Democratic deputies openly criticised the future tax exemption for capital sales, which they think will encourage mergers and take-overs; however, they did submit to party discipline and voted the package through. The conservative CDU/CSU, too, criticised the "merger-friendly" reform step and insisted that the measures taken favoured large enterprises over medium-sized ones; but, in general, the Christian Democrats called the tax cuts for enterprises "not deep enough." Minister Eichel said he considered the cuts far-reaching and the maximum of what the state could be expected to do for business. Moreover, he registered a steady recovery of the economy, including a decrease in unemployment.
The CDU/CSU has threatened to kill the law in the Bundesrat, (upper house of Parliament). A possible deal will likely include a reshuffling of the additional tax revenues between the federal and regional level. The minister presidents have already repeatedly called on Eichel to share the revenue surplus evenly with them.
No enemy, one alliance - which army?
The debate on reforming the Bundeswehr is approaching the boiling point, after the early leaking of a reform proposal by the so-called Weizsäcker Committee. Chaired by former federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, the Committee was convened some months ago by Defence Minister Rudolf Scharping to help him out of the crisis in which the army has been for some time, due to insufficient modernisation of equipment and training.
The proposal, which was to be released on 23 May but was leaked a fortnight earlier, envisages a sharp reduction of the army's strength from the current 320,000 to 240,000. Within the army, the proportion of professional soldiers serving in crisis reaction forces is to be increased from 50,000 to 140,000. In turn, there should be an annual number of Wehrpflichtige (recruits serving under general conscription) of only 30,000 (from the current 130,000 per year). Moreover, the total number of garrisons is to be reduced from 600 to 300.
Virtually all elements of this scheme will mean embarrassment for the Defence Minister. A reduction of such scope may jeopardize Germany's territorial defence capacity. Like many others, the members of the Weizsäcker Committee appear to subscribe to the view that, after the demise of the Soviet Union, a defence situation requiring tank armies and a large airforce is unlikely to occur – a position Scharping's generals and perhaps even Scharping himself share only up to a certain point. They see a necessity to maintain German Bündnisfähigkeit (the capability to live up to the duties of a NATO ally) – and that still includes "Article Five situations." More specifically, the fading significance of recruits, would – at least in the long term - threaten general service, of which Scharping is a staunch supporter. Halving the number of garrisons would have grave economic costs in many remote regions where the army is an important employer and customer; this would not be an easy thing to do for a Social Democrat.
Though the Committee's proposal is not binding, it has a certain moral weight that the Minister cannot easily ignore. The cabinet is set to adopt an official line by 14 June. What is more, the leaking has provoked all political parties to open fire on the Minister, who seems to have manoeuvred himself into a difficult position from where it is hard to see who is friend or foe.
The cabinet ministers, both Red and Green, support their colleague. Notably, the Green ministers, however, are urging Scharping to follow the Committee's proposal, which they consider to be the "only financially viable solution." Nevertheless, both coalition partners face a possible rift within their parties. The left wing of the traditionally anti-military Greens, the left-leaning Young Socialists (SPD Youth Organisation) and, interestingly, a number of regional SPD leaders are trying to use the opportunity to call for an even farther-reaching reduction of the Bundeswehr's strength, down to about 200,000, and a mid-term abolition of general service.
The same left factions, however, are in doubt about the restructuring of the army. They fear that professionalisation might produce an "interventionist army" at the arbitrary disposal of NATO. After the Kosovo war, which almost destroyed the Greens morally, this appears to some even less acceptable than general service. As a result, all of them favour a slow phasing out of conscription; in the meantime, they apparently hope for a further "civilisation" of NATO.
On the other flank, the CDU/CSU are joining forces with the generals of the Defence Ministry's planning staff and the Bundeswehrverband, a kind of soldiers' trade union. They all call the proposal fatally wrong, basically for the reasons Scharping himself puts forward in its favor. The Conservatives, while supporting restructuring the Bundeswehr to make it better equipped for crisis reaction, refute the entire approach of downsizing the army. Party spokespersons call a number of 300,000 "the absolute minimum."
The generals' aim is only somewhat lower. Already some time ago, the inspector general, Gen Hans-Peter von Kirchbach, suggested a strength of 290,000 men, of which 84,000 per year should be recruits serving seven months in a row and later another two months as manoeuvre participants.
The Minister himself has resorted to middle-ground, by proposing a future army strength of 280,000, including 70,000 per year. But most of all, Scharping has consistently identified equipment and training, not the size of the army, as the major obstacles to reform. It seems that at present the only people sharing his point of view are to be found on the benches of the opposition, a fact that does not facilitate the task of reform. The chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, is presently not taking an active part in the discussion.
Recently, some SPD board of defence experts have come to their Minister's rescue, or so it seems. They endorse his proposal of 280,000 men, yet they want Scharping to dwell more explicitly on the future openness of the army for men and women.
Jens Boysen, 19 May 2000
ZDF (Public German TV) Online News
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung