At the end of the nineties, the German socio-political situation seemed to reflect, in its many signs of crisis, the difficult decade of unitary life that has just passed. The country was suffering from the consequences of a difficult process of integration between the rich Germany of the West and the Eastern Länder, which were unrelated to any market logic until 1989. Economically, unemployment had exploded, especially in the East, with dramatic growth rates; the necessary transfer of resources from the West with ever increasing expenses had led to a heavy public deficit, and, despite the sacrifices required above all of employees through a harsh policy of rigor starting from 1996, the necessary integration of the poor areas with the more advanced ones had not been achieved. The weight of social tensions had also constituted a source of cultural and political anxieties and resentments which had repeatedly resulted in outbursts of xenophobic and racist violence (1992 – 93, and, subsequently, in 1997) addressed both against immigrants from Eastern Europe and Afro-Asiatic countries, and, with a more markedly neo-Nazi connotation, against Jewish objectives. On the political level, the long-standing chancellorship of the Christian Democrat H. Kohl, strong of a broad consensus at the beginning of the decade, had been gradually wearing out, despite the successes achieved by the chancellor on the international level and despite his undoubted capacity to absorb, at least in to a large extent, the most dangerous socio-political effects of unification, as well as to reconcile the unification of the country with the commitment to the process of European integration. On the opposite political front was the Social Democratic party which, in the new international climate increasingly characterized by a political hegemony of center-left forces,
In the early 1990s, the difficulties of the unification process had led to the Kohl-led government, consisting of a coalition between CDU (Christlich-Demokratische Union) and its Bavarian equivalent CSU (Christlich-Soziale Union), and the FDP (Freie demokratische Partei-Die Liberalen), to privilege internal problems, partially limiting the possibilities of action of Germany on the international scene. Furthermore, a constitutional provision appeared to prevent federal military intervention in non-NATO countries. Already in 1991the Gulf War, but later and with greater urgency the crises in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, raised the problem of a renewed role for the country in the world. At the end of a heated political debate, the Bundestag therefore authorized participation in the naval blockade against Serbia and Montenegro (July 1992), the sending of planes to Bosnia (March 1993) and joining the UN mission in Somalia (April 1993). Finally, in July 1994, the Constitutional Court declared compatible with the Grundgesetz (the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany, which later became, with a few variations, the Constitutional Charter of the United Kingdom) military engagement outside NATO, as long as from time to time submitted to the approval of the Bundestag. Faced with the new scenario of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, Germany di Kohl strengthened diplomatic relations with the countries of Eastern Europe and with Russia, with which since 1992 it had entered into an agreement for the cancellation of their respective debts and the protection of the autonomy of Germans residing in the Volga region. Still in the framework of international relations, the German position in the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish independence activists had internal repercussions:, 1994 and 1995) and the ambiguous attitude of the German government towards Kurds seeking political asylum (1994 – 95) aroused violent reactions from Kurds residing in Germany. Finally, on the European level, the commitment within the Community, sanctioned in 1992 with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, was concretized in the following years in the construction of the European Monetary Union (EMU): despite the fear for the disappearance of the mark, a symbol of fifty years of prosperity and freedom, united in a strongly critical attitude towards Kohl exponents of different classes and political groups, Germany joined the euro as a member of the first group of countries in the1998.
Social tensions and economic difficulties, central nodes of the integration process between the two Germany, weakened the popularity of Kohl and his government. Between 1992 and 1993 the country was severely hit by the recession which was responded to with spending cuts, starting with those on personnel, adopted by the most important companies in agreement with the trade unions, and with a government economic policy which, at a price of heavy sacrifices, seemed to ensure the country the conditions required to join the EMU. On the political level, the pressure of public opinion on the other hand imposed the adoption of a series of measures to contain the social tensions that unification had exacerbated: in November-December 1992Numerous neo-Nazi organizations were banned, in May 1993 limits were placed on the granting of the right to asylum and the following year the penalties for acts of racist violence were tightened.
Despite the evident difficulties, the CDU and its leader Kohl seemed to enjoy a solid basis of consensus: out of the nineteen electoral appointments in 1994, the CDU recorded a slight decrease in votes, while maintaining the majority of the votes, the Greens (Bündnis ’90 – Die Grünen) and the PDS (Partei des demokratischen Sozialismus, heir to the Communist Party of the German Democratic Republic) strengthened, while the SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) achieved significant success at the Land level (e.g. in Lower Saxony, where on March 13 it touched the absolute majority of votes) in the face of a serious contraction in the electorate of the FDP.
The political weight of the CDU was also confirmed by the election of the new president of the Republic: in July 1994, R. von Weizsäcker (CDU), federal president since 1984, was succeeded by the former president of the Constitutional Court R. Herzog, also from the CDU. Once confirmation Kohl came from Europe of 12 June 1994, when the CDU / CSU coalition established himself as first force in the country (38, 8 %); besides it, only the SPD (32, 2 %) and the Greens (10, 1 %) managed to cross the 5 % threshold and enter the European Parliament. The 8September the last British, French and US military contingents left Berlin, destined to become the capital of the new Germany. On 16 October the legislative elections were held for the second time since unification, which reaffirmed the primacy of the coalition formed by CDU / CSU (41, 4 %) and FDP (6, 9 %) against the SPD alliance (36, 4 %) and Greens (7, 3 %), however showing a decline in government parties (especially liberals) in the face of a substantial resumption of the opposing bloc: Federal Chancellor Kohl was re-elected, but with a margin of only 10votes (November). The PDS, due to discontent with an economic and social policy that seemed to forget the reasons of the Länder Eastern, strengthened his position in the East, where he won a total 17, 7 %, managing to enter the Bundestag, while the good result of the Greens pushed the CDU to negotiate with them, until the election of the green A. Vollmer as president of the Bundestag.
The new Kohl government also found itself having to face the problems of a fundamentally critical socio-economic situation. Thus, in 1995, the economic problems apparently solved by the financial consolidation of 1994 reappeared, with a sharp decline in employment and industrial production. In February, after accepting the 1994 restrictions, the metal workers’ unions called the first strike in eleven years, resulting in an increase in wages and a decrease in working hours (March 1995). Furthermore, if in September 1995 the Minister of Finance Th. Waigel (CSU) declared that Italy would never meet the Maastricht parameters, from the beginning of1996 it was clear that even Germany was not in a position to respect them. Encouraged by the positive results of the regional consultations in Baden-Württenberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Schleswig-Holstein (March 1996), and with the 1998 parliamentary elections still far away, Kohl therefore announced in April 1996 an austerity program for 1997 (” action program for investment and employment “, approved in September 1996), aimed at limiting the deficit to below 3% in order to adjust to the entry fees into the monetary union. By denouncing an emergency situation, the plan introduced a series of measures which, by reducing the cost of labor, should have favored the recovery: financing for risky activities and innovations, drastic reductions in public spending, simplification and reduction of taxation, as well as severe restrictions on social security and public health.
Accused by the opposition and the trade unions for its anti-social character and approved in a climate of intense tension (with strikes and anti-government protests culminating in the massive demonstration in Bonn in June 1996), the government plan did not, however, yield the desired results. In this context, the prospect of European Economic and Monetary Union was less and less popular: the SPD (and in particular the wing led by Germany Schröder, leader of Lower Saxony) continued to show a cautious attitude towards a transformation that it risked having as its price the dismantling of the welfare state. On a different side, the Bundesbank (Federal Bank) and its Governor H. Tietmeyer took an even more dangerous position for the government (June 1997), when they indicated that entry into EMU was a threat to the stability of the country and wished it to be postponed. To Tietmeyer’s statement, albeit subsequently denied, Kohl and Waigel reacted violently, condemning the Federal Bank’s interference in government actions: an unequivocal signal, for the opposition and public opinion, of a serious political and consensus crisis. which affected the Federal Chancellor and his ministers. A real ‘transversal party’ was thus formed, made up of a large part of the opposition but also of members of the majority, all detractors of the EU: the advent of a weak euro was feared, both due to German inability (and French) to fully and durably satisfy the conditions of Maastricht, both for the participation of nations (in particular Italy) that the economic and political instability made scarcely reliable. More than once, therefore, there was mention of a possible general postponement of the project. But any hypothesis of postponement was tenaciously rejected by Kohl, who believed that a timely launch of the euro was essential.
While the chancellor announced in April 1997 his intention to reapply in the 1998 policies, the SPD chose Germany Schröder as candidate for the Chancellery in place of the more orthodox and less charismatic president of the SPD, O. Lafontaine. Schröder claimed an innovative position with respect to the tradition of the party of origin. Some groups and political parties belonging to the political area of the western left, after the defeats suffered in the recent neoliberal decade and especially after the collapse of communism, now theorized the possibility of a ‘third way’ between the traditional right and left. Presenting themselves from time to time as modern or pragmatic or moderate, they seemed to be looking for a compromise between an now accepted request to contain public spending (and therefore to reduce the area of intervention of welfare) and attention to the weakest social groups, a compromise resolved – especially in the case of new labor –through support for community values and choices (solidarity and its social function, the family, volunteering in its various forms and institutions, community structures of various origins). Schröder, even without referring to the ‘communitarian’ choice, partly traced those modes and themes, emphasizing above all the need for the third way. His electoral program presented as qualifying points: 1) the strengthening of the economy, financial stabilization and the modernization of welfare and public education; 2) the fight against crime; 3) continuity in foreign policy; 4) the fight against unemployment, through social consultation; 5) a review of the measures adopted by the Kohl government regarding pensions, and the repeal of the laws on dismissal and health care. Little different from the Social Democratic one, and united to that by a substantial caution in defining the timing and costs of the promised policies, the Christian Democratic program insisted on the inalienability of a major tax reform, on continuity in nuclear energy, on a more immigration controls.
With an electoral campaign conducted in moderate and calming tones, Schröder addressed an electorate tired of the difficulties of the last decade, but cautious in its need for change. An electorate certainly made up of some of the most economically affected social strata, but, above all, made up of large sections of the middle class, still immune from the consequences of the crisis and yet strongly fearful of the possibility of suffering them. Schröder, with his modest origins and parallel determination to social success, and with his past resistance to a too rapid process of unification of the country, on the one hand, and to entry into EMU (both retracted only in the election campaign), on the other, he embodied a model and a point of reference for the wealthy majority of the country, now critical of Kohl in the name of the stability of the mark against the dangers of the euro, and in defense of its own stability against the increasingly threatening costs of unification. Furthermore, despite some signs of recovery (for the 1998 was expected to increase GDP of 3 %), 1998 was also the year in which the unemployed and homeless had reached figures not recorded since the end of the Second World War, and Kohl had failed, contrary to what had happened in 1994, to overturn the predictions by focusing on an image of solidity and security: the results of the measures adopted in the economic field had been too weak, nor had the tax reform announced for some time been defined and implemented and supported above all by the allies of the coalition, the liberals.
Despite the fact that the social democratic program addressed fundamental issues such as participation or social protection with substantial vagueness, and despite the difficulties of a government alliance between the Greens and the SPD in case of victory were already foreseeable (the ecologists asked, on a more decided by the Social Democrats, a rapid abandonment of nuclear power, a strong ecological tax on fuels, facilitating access to citizenship for foreign citizens), Schröder’s party won the elections (September 1998). The SPD won the 40, 9 % of the vote (298 seats in the Bundestag), the CDU / CSU on 35, 2 % (245seats), Bündnis’ 90 the 6, 7 % (47 seats), the PDS the 5, 1 % (35 seats). For the right, the vote was a sharp defeat: none of the three parties – DVU (Deutsche Volksunion), Republikaner and NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands) – managed to overcome the threshold of 5 % that conditioned, according to the electoral law, the entrance to the Bundestag, while the liberal FDP obtained the 6, 2 % (44 seats), aA decided not to participate in a government with the Social Democrats.
The coalition government between Social Democrats and Greens formed by Schröder in October 1998 encountered great difficulties not only in the conflicts between the two parties – especially in matters of environmental and nuclear policy – but also in the difficult coexistence, within the SPD itself and of the Grünen, of opposing currents. After the defeat of both parties in the regional elections in Hesse (February 1999), strong tensions erupted on the occasion of the military intervention in Yugoslavia (March-May 1999). On the other hand, the same ‘third way’ policy, redefined in a joint text by Blair and Schröder in May, did not seem to garner significant support in the country which, in the European elections in June, heavily penalized the governing parties.