Last Friday, chancellor Gerhard Schröder had to call in his most important ministers for a "secret" emergency session. The cabinet is facing a serious crisis of trust, due to the financial hardships levelled on the ministries and the laender (regions) governments by Finance Minister Hans Eichel's strict budget reform dating from 2000.
Quarrels with the powerful parliamentary leader of his own Social Democrats, Peter Struck, over details in the national savings plan seem to have been only the beginning of a row of clashes likely to happen in the near future, especially with laender governments facing elections. Due to Germany's complex three-layer governance system, the laender are very powerful but at the same time are responsible for handling most of public spendings, or rather, as it stands at the moment, savings.
The Iron Minister
Hans Eichel, dubbed—in a mix of awe and hatred—"thrifty Hans" by his political "friends," has been hailed for the positive macro-economic impact of the reforms he introduced. But now those office holders anxious to get re-elected soon are calling for a more "positive" approach to budget matters. Already now, however, before any additional spendings have been considered, the federal ministers have started squeezing their colleague to unfreeze some money for them to fulfil their constitutional duties.
The most burning and also telling example is defence minister Rudolf Scharping's Bundeswehr. The German army, having been for many years the principle budgetary milk-cow at the hands of a left-wing and thus almost by default "anti-militarist" cabinet and subjected to a first reform entailing economically painful reductions and closings of garrisons, is ever more reeling. At present, it has some DEM 800 million (EUR 410 million) in debt on its books.
Recently, the generals responsible for managing the "citizens' army" have stated with an as yet unseen bluntness that if the cabinet does not provide the armed forces with an additional DEM two billion (EUR 1.1 billion) annually, they will have but two choices left. One would be closing 50 to 60 more garrisons (which would kill minister Scharping politically) and reducing the army to even beneath the agreed all-time low figure of 285,000 men. This would make it all but inoperable within NATO. The other option would be to pull out of Kosovo—which would be next to impossible.
There are plenty of other such examples to illustrate the dilemma—if not to call it in old German fashion a "two front war"—that the government is finding itself in. Chancellor Schröder, who apparently has already seen the best part of his term of office, must try to preserve the good image of his team as well as its still new international credibility. At the end of the day, however, a Social Democratic leader's main enemy has always been his party.
One safe bet for Gerhard Schröder
That said, there seems to be at least one bright spot for the troubled Social Democratic leader: At the forthcoming elections to the diet of the southwestern land of Rhineland-Palatinate (25 March) the "red-yellow" (Social Democratic and Liberal) government is rather certain of being returned to power. Minister Kurt Beck (Social Democrats) is scoring high at the polls, ironically due to the overwhelmingly conservative electorate in former chancellor Helmut Kohl's home state. Beck has been so successful in office that even die-hard conservatives seem ready to vote for him.
It is the only land with a "Social-Liberal" government; ever since the 1982 Liberal "stab-in-the-back" of then Social Democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt, alike coalitions have been extremely rare. That it has survived in Rhineland-Palatinate is mainly due to the traditionally poor performance of the regional Greens, who in most laender have at least temporarily replaced the "old" Liberals as partners of the Social Democrats.
Capital of trouble
The city government of Berlin is undergoing its most severe crises and is likely to be toppled at the next elections. For a couple of years, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats have been ruling the German capital in an uneasy "grand coalition," with the principle aim of preventing a rising to power of the post-Communist Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).
The PDS has, since 1990, scored best or second best in what is still called "East Berlin" and clearly different from affluent "old Federal Republic" West Berlin. The programmatic substance of the "black-red" coalition has been rather poor, though. Especially the Social Democrats (SPD) have been scolded by the PDS and the left-wing Greens alike for their "bunker attitude" and been urged to take the lead of a large leftist government for which there visibly would be an arithmetical majority.
The long death of cold war Berlin
The SPD is indeed getting weary of the less than productive government work with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). Their discontent was deepened recently by the scandal around parliamentary CDU chairman Klaus Landowsky, whom it took ages to disentangle himself from a very embarrassing involvement in the financial dealing of a bank holding owned by the land of Berlin. The damage done to the CDU by his conduct would have been politically lethal in most other German laender.
In Berlin (more specifically, West Berlin), however, 40 years of being the West's "frontier city in a red sea" have produced a deeply ingrained fabric of actually mafiotic connections that still prove to be very hard to cut through.
The Social Democrats, in turn, ever since the 1920s, have felt compelled to follow a strict anti-Communist agenda; nowhere more so than in the capital where Communist obedience to Stalin helped bring Hitler to power in the early 1930s. During the cold war, Social Democrats, such as Ernst Reuter and Willy Brandt, led the West Berliners' hard-nosed resistance against the Communist brethren in the East. While the PDS may well have lost any revolutionary ambitions in the strict sense, many Social Democrats feel repelled by anything standing to their left.
Jens Boysen, 12 March 2001
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