Political Culture

A Question of Confidence – The Dissolution of the Bundestag

July 1st, 2005 was to be a fateful day for German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his Social Democrat/Green party government coalition. On this day, the Chancellor allows the parliament to call a vote of no confidence against him in order to clear the way for an early election.

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Author: Rolf Scheller
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Opponents accuse him of manipulating the voting procedure. They even file suit with the federal constitutional court. Now the matter is in the hands of the German President. After much deliberation Federal President Horst Köhler announces that he is in full agreement with Chancellor Schröder: The current state of affairs makes Germany ungovernable; the Chancellor does not enjoy majority support. The opposition parties CDU/CSU and FDP welcome the President’s decision as it opens a window of opportunity for them to move into government. On Sept. 18th, an early election will take place in Germany, as the lawsuit is not sustained. Now it’s up to the electorate to decide whether what is known as the “red-green” coalition will be able to carry on with their program, or if there will be a transfer of power.

A parliamentary no-confidence vote has been carried out three times in the short history of the German Federal Republic. Two of these resulted in the dissolution of the Bundestag and a fresh election being called.

The reason: The 1949 constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany states, in article 68, that the German President may dissolve parliament and call for a new chancellery election when a no-confidence ballot held in the Bundestag against the chancellor in office results in a majority expression of no-confidence, leaving the ruling government coalition without majority support in parliament.

In 1972 the opposition CDU/CSU initiated a no-confidence vote against the SPD/FDP government under Chancellor Willy Brandt. But the opposition attempt was a failure and Willy Brandt remained in office, albeit with only a slight margin of majority support.

Ten years later: After the FDP, the coalition partner of the governing SPD under Helmut Schmidt, left government transferring its allegiance to the opposition CDU/CSU, the leader of the opposition Helmut Kohl (CDU) was appointed chancellor. Although he enjoyed majority support, Kohl wanted to be confirmed in a popular election and called to have the question of confidence put against himself. Critics say he achieved his aim by manipulating the mechanism: because his own faction voted against him, he came a cropper in the confidence question. Karl Carstens, in the office of German President at the time, had major reservations about calling a new election, but he eventually gave in. In the election of March 1983, the CDU/CSU won and Helmut Kohl remained chancellor.

Now, Germany is once again in the midst of a no confidence election procedure. Leading up to it was a series of losses by the coalition government in several state elections, which tipped the majority ratio in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament or Länder chamber, where many important pieces of legislation are deliberated. Although Chancellor Schröder, together with collation partner Bündnis 90/Die Grünen still had a slight majority in the Bundestag - German parliament’s lower house - in the face of this weakened constellation, he nevertheless felt it unfeasible to carry out an effective political program until the end of the regular term of legislature in Fall 2006.

On the 1st of July 2005, the Chancellor put the question of confidence to a vote and achieved the defeat paradoxically aimed for. Criticism arose from his own ranks accusing him of manipulation. Critics argued that because large sections of Schröder’s own Social Democrat/Green coalition government abstained from voting, the ballot must be considered irregular. On those grounds the dissenters filed a lawsuit with the constitutional court in Karlsruhe. The court had until the end of August 2005 to decide whether or not the accusation warranted legal action. When German President Horst Köhler accepted the Chancellor’s petition on July 21, he had already cleared the way for an early election.

And since the Federal Constitutional Court ultimately dismissed the legal action, the early chancellery election will take place on the 18th of September 2005.
Goethe-Institut e. V. 2005
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