Germany’s travesty of democracy

Mary Dejevsky
9 October 2005

An election is held. The turnout is more than respectable and the result is almost a draw, but not quite. The major challenging party wins more seats in the national parliament than the governing party – not by many, but by enough.

Yet the governing party refuses to concede. Only today, 10 October – a full three weeks later – is the candidate of the winning party able to announce that she will lead the next government. During this interregnum, the election loser has continued to represent his country internationally.

Add in crude electoral violations and this is this sort of thing that triggers popular revolts – Serbia in October 2000; Georgia in winter 2003-04, Ukraine in winter 2004-05, Kyrgyzstan in March 2005. If a defeated leader were defying the election result in the depths of Asia or almost anywhere in Africa, we would protest loudly and long but not evince great surprise.

Leading observers in Germany and France assess Germany’s election campaign and contested result:

Tilman Spengler, “Germany’s time of choice” (September 2005)

Christopher Harvie, “The German solution?” (September 2005)

Patrice de Beer, “The Schroder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine” (October 2005)

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Yet this is precisely what has happened in Germany. Germany, of all countries!

The arguments for not dramatising the situation of these three weeks are easily rehearsed. In Germany, democracy has not really been endangered or compromised as it was in these other countries. The German system of proportional representation almost guarantees a coalition and all the parties are well used to negotiating. It will sort itself out in time, it could be argued; as indeed has begun to happen.

But that is not really the point. The fact is that a major western democracy held an election, and the ruling party refused to accept its loss. This is a scandal. It is a travesty of democracy. Yet Germany, still less the rest of Europe, has somehow been reluctant to call it that. Both country and continent are letting Gerhard Schröder bow out gently with his dignity intact. A furious public outcry would be more appropriate.

There are, of course, mitigating circumstances. The result of the 18 September election was extremely close. At one stage, quite late on election night, the results board showed Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) tied with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Christian Social Union (CSU) partners with 222 seats each. By the end of the night, Merkel’s centre-right had an advantage of three seats.

Given this closeness, it was understandable that Gerhard Schröder, whose prospects of remaining chancellor had been almost universally written off, should treat the results as tantamount to victory. For him, and his joyous supporters, they were. A month before polling day, the SPD was lagging 20% points behind the CDU/CSU. When the SPD almost closed the gap, it was not only because Angela Merkel made mistakes, but because Schröder is a brilliant campaigner and a fighter. I would even forgive his boorish braggadocio at the party leaders’ television panel on election night. With the result so close, all the leaders should have had the good sense to boycott this event.

There is no need to condemn Schröder either for not conceding defeat on the night. This was a pragmatic judgment by a seasoned competitor. Al Gore made the fatal mistake, in the days following the US election in 2000, of behaving like a loser. Had he been more aggressive and demanded a total recount in Florida, it is now accepted, he might have won. It is highly unwise to concede before you have to.

The German electoral system also contains rules that made it worthwhile for Schröder to hang on. The system of proportional representation meant that the final distribution of seats could change, albeit marginally, when the counting was complete. There are also confusing elements, such as the so-called Űberhangsmandate, allowing a party whose individual candidates have done better than the party as a whole to keep the extra seats. This can skew the calculations at the edges – and this was an election that went to the wire.

Another potentially complicating factor was the marginal constituency of central Dresden where the election was delayed until 2 October after the death of a candidate. If the SPD and CDU/CSU had ended up with the same number of Bundestag seats, Dresden would have decided the election – two weeks after everyone else had voted. This possibility had led to a court challenge: the petitioners argued that the Dresden vote might be distorted if voters knew the complexion of the next national government depended on them; they wanted the national results withheld until Dresden had voted.

In the event, the voters of central Dresden were not called upon to decide the election. The election was actually won on the night, and Dresden merely increased the CDU/CSU majority of seats from three to four.

A spoiled legacy

The German election result was as follows: CDU/CSU 226; SPD 222; FDP 61; the leftwing Linkspartei 54; Greens 51. This was unusual, not only because it was so close, but because neither of the conventional coalitions attained an overall majority. Tactical voting, coupled with the charisma of Guido Westerwelle, gave the FDP more votes than expected, but took them away from the CDU/CSU. The Linkspartei took votes from the SPD and Greens. After days and nights of post-election posturing and positioning, the likeliest outcome was evident from the start: a so-called grand coalition between the two main parties, with Angela Merkel at its head.

It has not been easy to get from 18 September to 10 October. But the precedence was clear all along. As leader of the winning party, Angela Merkel had the right to the first attempt at forming a government and becoming chancellor. If she failed, it was the SPD’s turn, with or without Schröder – as he and his party chose. If these discussions still produced no government, the president – Horst Köhler – can nominate a candidate for chancellor to be voted on in a secret Bundestag ballot. If that still failed to produce a chancellor, he can call a new election.

Also by Mary Dejevsky in openDemocracy:

“The west gets Putin wrong” (March 2005)

“Kyrgyzstan questions” (March 2005)

Why did Schröder not respect this order? His first argument was that Merkel’s CDU/CSU is really two parties, which would make the SPD the biggest party. This was pure sophistry. His second was that the election gave the left as a whole a majority in the new Bundestag. This was true, and it could have been be a decisive factor in the endgame, if the president had had to nominate a new chancellor. But it could not have been a factor after the election, given that there was no chance of collaboration between the SPD and the Linkspartei. Schröder may have been biding his time, but that was absolutely no justification for blocking Ms Merkel’s path to the chancellorship if she herself was prepared to try to form a grand coalition.

Gerhard Schröder has a highly attractive rags-to-riches personal history; he is a scintillating campaigner, and he was not a bad chancellor of Germany. Whether he is a democrat seems to be another matter. His response to electoral defeat should be a deep stain on his legacy.

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