Political Change in Germany: Paving the Way for a Governing Coalition of Social Minorities

By in Berlin

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is in trouble. In a mess of his own making. Not because of anything he did wrong, but because of what he and his coalition partner did right. Together, they established a political atmosphere where a woman (Angela Merkel) and a homosexual (Guido Westerwelle) could soon take over the reins of German political leadership.

Guido Westerwelle, leader of Germany's Liberals, could be part of the next German government. Here, with his partner.
DPA

Guido Westerwelle, leader of Germany's Liberals, could be part of the next German government. Here, with his partner.

Germany has never seen an election campaign like this before. And not just because Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- suffering from disastrous approval ratings and rapidly dwindling support -- has called for early elections in order. No. In this campaign, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his coalition partner Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (although they have decided to campaign separately this time around) are going up against a possible alliance of Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Guido Westerwelle, head of the Liberals (FDP).

In other words, there is a very real possibility that Germany's next government will be a coalition between a woman -- who will likely become Germany's first woman chancellor -- and a gay man. And, in many ways, it is the progressive politics of the seven-year-long coalition between Schroeder's Social Democrats and Fischer's Greens that have made it possible. They are fighting against political opponents that they, themselves, helped to put there.

"I really think that the social atmosphere created by the (governing coalition of the SPD and the Greens) have helped to make such a constellation possible," says Ulla Bock, a professor of politics at the Free University in Berlin who deals with gender and minority issues. "The politicians who came out of the social movements of the 1960s really are the ones who brought these issues in to the center of the discussion."

Homosexuality? So what?

Indeed, the Germany of 2005 is one in which homosexuality in public life is no longer an issue. When Westerwelle came out in July 2004 -- by bringing his boyfriend to Angela Merkel's birthday party -- the public reaction was the equivalent of a nation-wide yawn. The sexual preferences of Berlin's gay mayor Klaus Wowereit have engendered much the same response. And, in August 2003, when the right-leaning politician Ronald Schill attempted to blackmail his coalition partner Hamburg mayor Ole von Beust by threatening to go public with von Beust's homosexuality, the mayor went ahead and did it himself. Von Buest still sits in Hamburg's city hall. Schill, on the other hand -- in no small part because of his attempt to politicize von Beust's homosexuality -- was quickly dropped from the coalition and rapidly descended into political anonymity.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder filled his cabinet with women.
DPA

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder filled his cabinet with women.

Women have likewise made advances on the political front, albeit on a much more limited scale. Until Angela Merkel took over as head of the conservative Christian Democrats in April 2000, a woman heading the party of Helmut Kohl was difficult to imagine. Likewise, Chancellor Schroeder's cabinet contains six women (of 14 total cabinet members), the most ever in a post-war German government.

Much of these social advances can, of course, be put down to a general trend of social enlightenment across the European continent. But Germany is not traditionally progressive on social issues. Even today, women have a hard time breaking into leadership positions in the corporate world, ageism is rampant and unemployment among Germany's immigrant population is much higher than the average. Many of the advances that have been made, however -- and the potential political partnership between Merkel and Westerwelle --can be seen as a legacy of the governing coalition between the Social Democrats and the Greens.

"The German society after World War II just didn't have these topics on the agenda," says Bock.

Promoting social awareness at the highest levels

Much of the social conscience in the current governing coalition comes from the Green Party. Born out of the anti-establishment protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the party has always placed great importance on social questions and has made it a priority to maintain a more-or-less even split between men and women in the party leadership. The party has likewise been more active than any other on trying to open Germany up to immigration. The SPD, for its part, has also promoted women within the party and within Germany's bureaucracy through a process Schroeder calls "gender mainstreaming." In 2000, they passed a law guaranteeing equal treatment of all state employees.

Head of the Christian Democrats Angela Merkel has nosed ahead of the men in her party and could become Germany's next chancellor.
AP

Head of the Christian Democrats Angela Merkel has nosed ahead of the men in her party and could become Germany's next chancellor.

Together, the coalition made a number of efforts to translate their progressive social principles into law. They introduced a number of laws that -- while falling short of allowing homosexual marriages outright -- went a long way toward providing gay couples with many of the same rights as married couples. The coalition also allowed for much-needed tax breaks for single mothers. And both policies moved toward a political redefinition of the concept of family. The government also attempted to break with entrenched skepticism about immigration by introducing comprehensive new legislation and have introduced the concept of consumer protection into the German political landscape.

The balance sheet isn't completely positive of course. There is still much progress to be made on gender equality. Many in the gay community would have liked to see homosexual marriage made law. And the immigration law failed catastrophically. And not all of the progress can be laid at the feet of the current government; already in 1993, Germany's high court noted that "same sex couples are faced with many hurdles in following their lifestyle and have many disadvantages relative to married couples," and that changes would have to be made.

But, the coalition "has always focused more on such social issues as equal rights for women and other minorities, which is actually why they were voted in by many women and others," says Sabine Berghahn, a Berlin university professor who researches women's rights in Germany. "But by failing to live up to their rhetoric, (the governing coalition) has actually disappointed a number of voters."

Germany has become much more accepting of homosexuality in recent years.
DDP

Germany has become much more accepting of homosexuality in recent years.

More important, perhaps, than their legislative history, the SPD-Green coalition has made huge steps in instigating a public discussion on social issues. Especially during their first four years from 1998 to 2002, the papers were full of commentaries on gender equality, homosexuality, immigration and a myriad of other social issues. And while not all agreed as to how to approach such issues -- the coalition was often and viciously attacked from the right side of the political spectrum -- the attention meant that social questions were able to migrate from the fringe into the mainstream. As the political power of Merkel and Westerwelle demonstrate, that migration has continued directly into the halls of political power -- even within parties not traditionally known for their social awareness.

And for that, they have their political opponents Gerhard Schroeder and Joschka Fischer to thank.

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