’Dramatic Shift’ in German Politics Toward the Right

The right-of-center Free Democrats are big winners in Germany’s elections and, in coalition with Christian Democrats, will likely support pro-U.S. policies on Afghanistan and Iran, says expert William M. Drozdiak.

September 28, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Voters have signaled a "dramatic shift" in German politics, away from the so-called grand coalition between the two major parties, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, and toward a more right-wing government coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats, says William M. Drozdiak, a U.S. expert on Germany. Drozdiak, speaking in Berlin, says both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats suffered electoral losses, and the big winner was the Free Democratic Party. He says that he anticipates a more pro-U.S. government, prepared to continue military commitments in Afghanistan, and willing to engage in tough talks with Iran on its nuclear program. But he also says the Free Democrats may urge Chancellor Angela Merkel to seek the removal of all U.S. nuclear weapons from German soil.

It looks as if German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, will end up in a ruling coalition with the Free Democratic Party, which has not been in a leading position for many years. Can you talk a bit about the results of the election? Were there any big surprises?

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The big headline, of course is the end of the so-called "grand coalition" which after the inconclusive elections in 2005 had joined Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats with the Social Democrats, led by Frank-Walter Steinmeier. This was a fairly stagnant, unsuccessful government even though they controlled 70 percent of the seats in parliament. The Social Democrats really participated in this coalition in a halfhearted manner and as a result ran a very lackluster campaign. As a result, you will have a dramatic shift in the nature of the government. It will become now a center-right government with Merkel in the chancellery with the Free Democrats, who have a much different program than the Social Democrats. But perhaps the most dramatic change on the political scene is the devastating setback suffered by the Social Democrats [who have] been, over decades, one of the central pillars of Germany’s political stability. The party of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt went down to a disastrous defeat. And they will now go into opposition and have to recreate themselves possibly in an alliance with the "Die Linke"[Left] party, which includes many former communists.

What caused this major loss for the Social Democrats, who at the start of this decade were at the helm of the government under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder?

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They paid the price for Chancellor Schroeder’s reforms, his efforts to cut back the social welfare state. This alienated the trade unions so the workers left the Social Democrats in droves and were attracted to the party of the former communists, the Left. So they moved further to the left, but it was also a rejection of the leadership, which was fairly lackluster of Frank-Walter Steinmeier who was the outgoing foreign minister. He had never held an elected office before. He ran an extremely boring campaign, didn’t really have any issues and the natural constituency of the Social Democrats was very uncomfortable with the positions that they had taken in government with the Christian Democrats. They felt that the party was not getting its way on many of the key issues and as a result, there was  deep fracture between left-wing Social Democrats--- many moved to sign up for the Left  party of former communists--- and those of the moderates who were now becoming a dwindling force in Germany.

The two new elements in German foreign policy will be desire to see a new relationship with Russia, which is also very much in tune with the Obama administration and most of all, a very strong push for nuclear disarmament.

I gather that Mrs. Merkel also lost votes, right?

That’s right. The day after elections, it’s a bit hard to read how many votes she lost because of either tactical reasons or of genuine disaffection. Her party, the Christian Democrats, came out with perhaps its worst results since 1959. They only won 33.5 percent of the vote. But many of those who are natural supporters of Chancellor Merkel may have decided to cast their vote for the Free Democrats in order to create this center-right coalition, which they felt would be much more in tune with their desires to have a government that will reform the tax system, carry out necessary changes in health care and education and also protect citizen rights, which are all issues that the Free Democrats were advocating during the campaign.

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Talk about the Free Democrats.

They basically advocate market-based reforms. They want to see the size of the German state reduced in people’s lives; they basically consist of entrepreneurs, young upwardly-mobile people, German "yuppies" if you will, and also it’s sort of the reform-minded academics who think that state control in Germany has gone too far.

The Free Democrats will take the vice-chancellor job and also foreign minister. That will be Guido Westerwelle. Can you anticipate the positions of the new German government on key issues like keeping troops in Afghanistan, sanctions on Iran, issues that are very much in the public eye here?

With Merkel in charge as chancellor and the Free Democrats in charge of the foreign ministry, you will see very solidly pro-American positions on a number of issues. These include continuing support of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The Germans will be following the policy review in Washington very closely but I do not think you will see an early push for the Germans to pull their troops out of Afghanistan. They will support the NATO strategy but they are like people in the United States, saying "it’s not going well, we need to think of a new more effective strategy." They will be supportive of NATO and the United States. On Iran, Germany has a big role to play because it has the most lucrative trade relationship with Iran. They have about $5 billion in trade each year with the Iranians. But they have said that the discovery of the second enrichment plant means that the major powers including Russia and China need to move towards a more effective sanctions regime. So they’re supportive in that respect.

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The two new elements in German foreign policy will be desire to see a new relationship with Russia, which is also very much in tune with the Obama administration and most of all, a very strong push for nuclear disarmament. This has been a long standing feature of the Free Democrats. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who for many years was foreign minister, was a big supporter of nuclear disarmament and that will extend not just to getting an agreement with Russia on strategic weapons. The Free Democrats will push Merkel and the Christian Democrats in this new government to get rid of all tactical nuclear weapons on German soil, which means the weapons that the American forces had there would have to go.

Is that going to cause a big problem for the Americans?

Until now, the Americans have argued that we need to have tactical nuclear weapons in Europe in order to compensate for reduced conventional manpower, but nuclear disarmament is a very strongly-felt view here. And in particular, many Germans feel that the United States, Russia, and other nuclear powers have not done enough to get rid of their nuclear arsenals as a way of supporting their side of the bargain in the nonproliferation treaty. And thus, Germany, which vowed long ago that nuclear war should never emanate from its territory, feels more strongly about that than ever. That could be one area of potential conflict with the policy of the Obama administration.

I’ve been reading that the Free Democrats would like to keep Germany’s nuclear power plants. I gather there’s a law in effect that all nuclear power plants have to be dismantled in coming years?

That’s right. When the Social Democrats were in a coalition with the Greens this law was passed and it continued under the grand coalition with the Christian Democrats. The law states that all existing nuclear power plants would be discontinued or put out of operation by the year 2020. The new government is likely to pass new legislation that will allow them to stay in operation for the foreseeable future, at least beyond 2020, until they come to the end of their lifespan. They will, in all likelihood, not approve any new nuclear power plants. But nonetheless, this sets up a strong point of conflict with the parties in opposition including the Social Democrats, the former communists known as the Left, and the Greens party, of course. So we could see some pretty fierce protests against a new policy by the new government.

For Americans the name that is new is Westerwelle, the FDP leader. Does he have any real experience in foreign affairs?

No, no, he’s not considered to be a highly-knowledgeable expert on foreign affairs. He is a smart, articulate politician. He’s been very progressive on social issues. He will be the first openly-gay foreign minister that Germany has ever had but will rely on outside advice in terms of foreign policy.


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