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Political Developments since Unification

The political institutions of unified Germany are remarkably similar to those of the former West Germany, reflecting minor adjustments to accommodate the larger population rather than making fundamental changes. The unfolding drama of unification is much more evident when one takes into consideration Germany's political landscape, including elections, political climate in the unified country, and issues that have dominated that landscape.

The Bundestag election of December 2, 1990, was the first all-Germany election since 1932. The election returned to power the governing coalition of the CDU/CSU and the FDP. The central issue of the campaign was unification. Parties that strongly supported unification scored well; those that were ambivalent or opposed to unification, such as the SPD and the Greens, fared poorly.

Helmut Kohl's political fortunes soon declined, however, in the wake of problems with the unification process. Increasing unemployment in the east, and anger in the west about a tax increase that Kohl had pledged to avoid before the 1990 election, caused the CDU to lose a series of Land elections after unification. As a result, in 1991 the ruling coalition lost its majority in the Bundesrat when the CDU lost power in the Länder of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate (Kohl's home Land ). This development made it more difficult for the Kohl government to gain approval for key legislative initiatives.

The year 1994 was nicknamed the "super election year" because Germany conducted approximately twenty elections at the local, Land , federal, and European levels, culminating in the national election in October. In eight Land elections throughout 1994, the SPD fared better than did the CDU. The SPD thus increased its majority in the Bundesrat. The FDP performed miserably at the Land level, failing to gain the required 5 percent for representation in all eight elections. Given this poor showing, many observers question the staying power of the FDP as a political force in Germany. Observers were surprised by the strength of the former Communists (PDS) in the eastern Länder ; all five new Länder held elections in 1994, with the PDS garnering from 16 to 23 percent of the vote in each (see table 21, Appendix). The PDS increased its share of the vote over the results in 1990 and solidified the party's position as the third strongest political force in eastern Germany. On November 9, 1994, Germans celebrated the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, much still divides eastern and western Germans, not least economic success, and the PDS was able to capitalize on eastern resentments.

Germans voted in national elections on October 16, 1994. Chancellor Kohl was challenged by Rudolf Scharping, the minister president of the western Land of Rhineland-Palatinate and the chairman of the SPD. Election themes included unemployment and economic growth, particularly in light of unification, as well as law and order. Except for the future of the EU, foreign policy issues did not figure in the election campaign.

Scharping began 1994 with a strong lead in public opinion polls, but, beginning in late April, the SPD's support began a sustained decline for several reasons. First, the CDU benefited from an increasingly positive economic outlook in Germany. Second, Scharping was seen by many to be a lackluster candidate; further, he was not wholly successful in portraying himself as the conciliator who had brought harmony to a traditionally fractious SPD. Chancellor Kohl, however, was seen to embody stability, continuity and predictability; one of his election slogans was "no experiments." Third, the CDU/CSU launched a fierce campaign against the PDS, whose members had belonged to the Communist SED, calling them "red-painted fascists," and Kohl succeeded in incriminating the SPD, at least marginally, in this seeming Communist revival. The SPD provided Kohl with this opportunity by forming a minority government with the Greens in the eastern Land of Saxony-Anhalt that depended on the votes (or abstention) of the PDS to remain in office. This CDU/CSU tactic was aimed, effectively it would seem, at those western German voters who, despite Scharping, questioned the SPD's commitment to centrist policies.

Kohl's governing coalition claimed a narrow victory; its majority in the Bundestag was reduced from 134 to ten seats (see table 4, Appendix). The Greens and the former Communists also won representation in the Bundestag. The far-right Republikaner, seen as a spent political force, failed to clear the 5 percent hurdle necessary to enter the Bundestag. Voter turnout, up slightly from the 1990 election, was 79.1 percent. Following the election, Scharping became the leader of the SPD's parliamentary group in the Bundestag, which will allow him to keep a high national profile in preparation for the next national election. The coalition government of Kohl's CDU, the CSU, and the FDP will focus on creating jobs, trimming bureaucracy, fighting crime, and expanding the EU eastward.

The FDP's seemingly chronic inability to win representation in Land parliaments means that it is increasingly losing its regional bases and its reservoirs of future political talent. If and how the FDP can regenerate support remains to be seen. Recent CDU overtures to the Greens--until recently an unthinkable development--also suggest a CDU awareness of the possible need for an alternate coalition partner in the future. The 1994 election may thus mark the beginning of some profound changes in political alignments in Germany.

Unified Germany's second national election suggests that the country's east-west divide has not narrowed. The strongest evidence is the success of the PDS in winning parliamentary representation. In eastern Germany, the PDS received 19.2 percent of the vote, compared with only 0.9 percent in the west. The national tally of 4.4 percent was insufficient to clear the 5 percent hurdle for parliamentary representation, but the PDS benefited from an oft-forgotten electoral law that automatically qualifies a party for representation according to its overall share of the national vote when the party wins three electoral districts outright (first votes). The PDS surprised seemingly everyone in winning four districts outright (all in eastern Berlin), entitling it to thirty seats in the Bundestag.

The future of the PDS is unclear and may well depend on whether the CDU and the SPD develop programs that attract current PDS constituents. Kohl's coalition lost twice as many votes in the east as in the west, winning 49.9 percent of the vote in the west and 42.5 percent in the east. The SPD faces the challenge in the east of competing against two other parties of the left, the PDS and the Greens. When considering the success of the PDS, however, one must recall that 80 percent of eastern Germans did not vote for the former Communists. At present, PDS leaders are working to rid the party of its Stalinist heritage; if successful, the PDS would certainly have a broader appeal.

As of mid-1995, right-wing extremist parties held seats in three of sixteen Land parliaments (Baden-Würtemberg, Bremen, and Schleswig-Holstein) and appeared to be fading from the German political landscape. The most significant of these parties, the Republikaner, with about 23,000 members, attracted support principally by criticizing a government policy that allowed hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers into Germany. However, the Kohl government engineered a revision of the German constitution in 1992 that severely restricts the right to asylum (which had been the most liberal in Europe), thus largely calming public concerns. The far right has thereby lost its major platform and has been tainted by violent attacks against foreigners in Germany. In-fighting has also divided the party and resulted in the ouster of leader Franz Schönhuber, a former Waffen-SS member and the party's one nationally known figure (see The Republikaner and the German People's Union, this ch.). In the October 1994 election, with close to 80 percent voter turnout, the Republikaner received only 1.9 percent of the national vote, thus once again failing to win representation in the Bundestag. This outcome cemented a downward trend, which had been evinced in the European Parliament election and Land elections throughout the year. That downward trend is particularly notable in light of the fact that extreme right parties have met with considerable electoral success in several West European countries, such as France, Belgium, and Italy.

A plethora of controversial issues has marked political debate in united Germany, for example, the right to political asylum, the upsurge in right-wing violence, and the tensions surrounding the unification process itself. The Basic Law originally contained a liberal regulation on the right to asylum, and in 1992 a total of 438,191 asylum-seekers streamed into Germany--up from 256,112 in 1991. Most asylum-seekers were from Romania, the former Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. Many Germans complained that the German law permitted many people who were not political refugees, but rather economic migrants, to take advantage of the country's generous welfare system and compete with Germans for scarce housing. Extreme right-wing parties capitalized on this widespread resentment against asylum-seekers in April 1992 elections in two western Länder .

On December 6, 1992, Kohl's governing coalition and the opposition Social Democrats agreed on a constitutional amendment to limit the right to asylum. The asylum compromise between the government and the opposition included several important changes. First, asylum-seekers from European Community (EC--see Glossary) states or states that accept the Geneva Convention on Refugees and the European Human Rights Convention have no right to asylum in Germany. Second, any refugee passing through "safe third countries," which include all of Germany's neighbors, is ineligible for asylum. An individual may appeal this decision but may not stay in Germany during the course of that appeal. In exchange for these concessions, the Social Democrats won agreements to place an annual limit of 200,000 on the immigration of ethnic Germans eligible for automatic German citizenship and to ease the terms of citizenship for longtime foreign residents of Germany (see Immigration, ch. 3). Parliament approved the new asylum law in late May 1993, and it took effect on July 1. About 10,000 protesters surrounded the Bundestag on the day of the vote, but apparently about 70 percent of Germans approved the more restrictive asylum law. The number of foreigners seeking asylum in Germany has fallen substantially since the new law went into effect.

Another pressing issue has been the escalation of right-wing violence. In 1992 right-wing extremists committed 2,584 acts of violence in Germany, an increase of 74 percent from 1991. Seventeen people were killed in the 1992 attacks, six in 1991. About 60 percent of the attacks occurred in western Germany and 40 percent in eastern Germany--home to only 20 percent of the population. About 90 percent of the right-wing attacks in 1992 were directed against foreigners--above all, at asylum-seekers and their lodgings. People under the age of twenty-one committed 70 percent of these attacks.

In November 1992, three Turkish residents were killed in a firebombing in Mölln in western Germany. Of the 80 million people living in Germany in 1993, about 1.8 million were Turks, making that ethnic group the country's largest minority. Two-thirds of those Turks had lived in Germany at least a decade. The overwhelming majority of Germans condemn xenophobia and neo-Nazism, and after the Mölln attack, over 3 million Germans demonstrated across the country against right-wing violence. Following the violence in Mölln, the government began a crackdown on far-right violence. The federal prosecutor took over for the first time the investigation of an antiforeigner attack. The decision was made to charge the perpetrators with murder, rather than manslaughter, as had been done following previous arson attacks leading to fatalities. In December 1993, a judge imposed maximum sentences on the two men convicted in the Mölln killings. Other measures taken by the government included banning four small neo-Nazi organizations and outlawing the sale, manufacture, and distribution of the music of several neo-Nazi rock bands.

Despite the government's actions, the number of right-wing attacks increased in the first six months of 1993. The most serious incident occurred on May 29, 1993, when right-wing youths firebombed a house in Solingen in western Germany, killing five Turks. In late December 1993, four right-wing youths were charged with murder in the Solingen attack. In late October 1993, United States citizens for the first time became the target of right-wing violence. Two skinheads harassed African-American members of the United States Olympic luge team, which was practicing at an eastern German training center. When a white luger intervened on his teammates' behalf, he was severely beaten by the skinheads.

By the end of 1993, the surge in right-wing violence appeared to be abating. The federal police reported that, in the first eleven months of 1993, rightist crime dropped by 28 percent compared with the same period in 1992. As of December 2, 1993, eight people had died in rightist violence compared with seventeen in 1992. A police spokesman stated that the decline reflected decisive executive action, including faster police responses, tougher sentences, and bans on neo-Nazi groups.

Much of the public debate on how to address the causes of right-wing violence has focused on how better to integrate foreigners into German society. Chancellor Kohl announced some steps to make it easier for foreigners to become German citizens. He stopped short, however, of advocating dual citizenship. Concern exists in law enforcement circles that neo-Nazis are building an underground network of small, organized cells patterned in part on those of the Red Army Faction (Rote Armee Fraktion--RAF), the far-left organization that carried out bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings in the 1970s and 1980s (see The Student Movement and Terrorism, ch. 2; Dissidence and Terrorist Activity, ch. 9). The establishment of such a network would make it much more difficult for the authorities to monitor neo-Nazi activities.

A final issue dominating Germany's political scene has been the ongoing challenge of implementing unification. Among other things, the two Germanys have had to enact uniform legislation, decide on what city should serve as their capital, and bring the former leaders of East Germany to justice.

Unification left Germany with a population possessing widely different views on matters such as the family, religion, and the work ethic. A particularly sensitive issue has been abortion. East Germany, which permitted free abortion on demand up to the twelfth week of pregnancy, had a markedly more liberal policy on abortion than did West Germany. In June 1992, the Bundestag, in an attempt to unify abortion policy, approved an abortion law--opposed by Chancellor Kohl--that granted a woman the right to an abortion up to the twelfth week of pregnancy, provided she accepted counseling first. Thirty-two of the 268 CDU legislators, primarily from eastern Germany, broke ranks with the party leadership and approved the bill.

On August 4, 1992, the Federal Constitutional Court issued an injunction against the parliament's decision, and abortion continued to be available on demand in the east and largely prohibited in the west, pending a final court judgment. On May 28, 1993, the Federal Constitutional Court struck down the compromise law on the basis of the Basic Law's explicit protection of the rights of the unborn child. The ruling held that abortion was no longer a criminal offense but that abortions would only be allowed in the first three months of pregnancy for women who first participated in a formal consultation process. Further, the ruling barred insurance funds from paying for abortions and Land hospitals from performing them. The ruling went into effect on June 16, 1993. Women's groups, opposition politicians from the west, and easterners from across the political spectrum expressed outrage at the court's decision. At some point in the future, the Bundestag is still expected to pass a uniform abortion law for the entire country.

Another question that arose with unification was where to locate the new German capital. The Bundestag voted in June 1991 to move the capital from Bonn to Berlin, fulfilling a long-standing promise of West German politicians across the board. The vote in favor of Berlin was surprisingly narrow, with 338 legislators supporting Berlin and 320 supporting Bonn. Many of the parliamentarians who voted for Bonn spoke of the symbolic importance of the capital's geographical location, with Bonn bearing witness to the critical importance of the Atlantic Alliance and Germany's commitment to Western democracy. Many who supported Berlin saw their choice as a necessary act of conciliation toward eastern Germans and a necessary step toward Germany's return to the world stage as a "normal" nation.

The quick move to Berlin that many eastern Germans had hoped for was thwarted by a quiet, yet effective, campaign led by Bonn bureaucrats and certain key politicians who opposed the Bundestag decision on several grounds. First, members of this group cited the huge expense of moving the government, estimated at just under US$19 billion by the Ministry of Finance. Second, they argued that Berlin's historical associations as the capital of a united Germany were negative and that Germany should avoid doing something to suggest to its neighbors a return to expansionist or aggressive tendencies. Third, many officials balked at the personal inconvenience of moving to Berlin if they owned homes in the Bonn area or otherwise faced having to uproot their families from the rather provincial Rhineland and relocate in a booming metropolis.

After two years of indecision, the Kohl cabinet announced in October 1993 that the government would complete the move to Berlin by December 31, 2000; the move will begin in 1998. The opposition Social Democrats had threatened to make the government's reluctance to move an issue in the 1994 national election campaign. Foreign embassies and private companies had delayed their moves to Berlin while waiting for an official announcement of a timetable. The cabinet decision sent a decisive message to investors and property developers who believed the move would attract greater investment in the five eastern Länder . The Bonn lobby won certain important concessions as well: eight government ministries will keep their headquarters in Bonn, and the remainder will retain offices there. Kohl received sharp criticism about the distant deadline from some commentators, who argued that the government's hesitation to complete the move was impeding the social and psychological unification of east and west.

Many Germans see the prosecution of former East German officials as a necessary part of coming to terms with divided Germany's past. On November 12, 1992, a trial opened in Berlin involving six defendants, including former East German leader Erich Honecker, former minister of state security Erich Mielke, and former prime minister Willi Stoph. These men were put on trial for the killings of East Germans trying to cross the border to the west. Two days later, however, Mielke and Stoph were declared unfit to stand trial for health reasons. Charges were then dropped against Honecker because of his advanced cancer, and he was allowed to join his family in Chile in early 1993. The remaining three defendants--all former members of East Germany's National Defense Council--were convicted in September 1993, receiving prison sentences ranging from four-and-one-half years to seven-and-one-half years.

From the start, the legal basis for the trials was questionable. German law does not apply to acts committed by East German citizens in a state that no longer exists. Thus, the defendants had to be prosecuted for transgressions of East German law, and East Germany's border law allowed guards to shoot anyone trying to flee. The Berlin prosecutors argued that the law was evil and ought not to have been obeyed, a form of reasoning with which the judges agreed. Many legal scholars believe that the convictions could be reversed on appeal, however. In part, the prosecution of these former East German leaders grew out of public indignation over the trials of border guards while senior policy makers were going free. By late 1993, ten border guards had stood trial. Nine received short, suspended sentences or acquittals; one received a sentence of six years for having shot and killed a fugitive who had already been caught and was under arrest. In the fall of 1993, the Bundestag extended the statute of limitations by three years for minor crimes by former East German officials and by five years for more serious crimes.

Most observers of Germany believe the country will solve the economic and political challenges associated with the unification process. However, polls indicated that, as time passed, eastern and western Germans seemed to see the gap between them widening rather than narrowing. In an April 1993 poll, when asked whether eastern and western Germans felt solidarity or antagonism toward one another, 71 percent in the west and 85 percent in the east answered "antagonism." In the coming years, perhaps the greatest challenge to Germans of the east and west will be to master the task of achieving social harmony. Only then can they become one nation.

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A rich literature on German government and politics is readily available in English. The Press and Information Office of the Federal Republic of Germany offers the public a wide range of documents, including the Basic Law, free of charge. That office also publishes the Week in Germany , which covers current events. The Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune provide good daily coverage of German news as well.

English-language studies of the political system are published regularly. One of the most comprehensive and readable texts available is Politics in Germany by Russell J. Dalton. Another general volume providing valuable information is Developments in German Politics , edited by Gordon Smith, William E. Paterson, Peter H. Merkl, and Stephen Padgett. A more specialized, comparative parliamentary study is The United States Congress and the German Bundestag , edited by Uwe Thaysen, Roger H. Davidson, and Robert Gerald Livingston. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany is a comprehensive examination of the Basic Law by the noted constitutional scholar David P. Currie. Three journals--German Politics , German Politics and Society, and West European Politics --are useful sources of information as well. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of August 1995

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