Political storm brews in West Germany
West Germany's political crisis simmers on and threatens to explode in - depending on the eye of the beholder - late September, early next year, or not at all.
For Italian, Dutch, and Belgian beholders next door, Bonn's 13-year-old Social Democratic-Liberal coalition and its current 41-seat majority in Parliament look like a paragon of stability and decisiveness.
Yet for order-loving older Germans, and especially for traditional politicians, the shadow of minority governments in two states - Hamburg since early summer, West Berlin since spring of 1981 - looms ominously as a portent of the future.
And for a Social Democratic Party (SPD) that has been losing its perennial urban strongholds one after the other, the immediate coalition quarrel over the budget - the issue that has once again prompted speculation about a coalition breakup - is much less threatening itself than the erosion of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's SPD by the fledgling environmentalist Green Party.
Yet another interpretation of the crisis is offered by those youths who have flocked to the ecology banner in the past two years to give the Greens seats in five of West Germany's 11 state legislatures (and probably six, come the Hesse election in September). For them the real crisis is the whole political system, which they regard as having enabled the established parties to ignore environmental concerns. In this view the Green's recent breakthrough into state legislatures, far from signaling a new crisis, means, at last, a step toward solving the old one.
All of this leaves the traditional parties gasping.
It's a tossup whether the junior coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), or the senior partner, the Social Democratic Party, is gasping harder. The FDP, quite baldly, has been facing extinction ever since public opinion polls in June gave the Greens a higher percentage than the FDP for the first time. And extinction of an FDP that could no longer muster the 5 percent minimum of votes to get into legislatures (as in the June election in Hamburg) would drastically change the face of federal politics in West Germany.
It would remove the traditional swing party that has determined politics in the postwar period by emphasizing its pro-detente foreign policy in one period to form a coalition with the Social Democrats or emphasizing its restraint on social redistribution in another period to form a coalition with the conservatives.
Prospects for the SPD are not so drastic, but they are bad enough. Hamburg - which the SPD still rules by a constitutional quirk as a minority government - was only the last in a long line of cities to have turned against the Social Democrats after decades of Social Democratic tradition. And every new state and local election shows the SPD dropping 3 percent, 5 percent, or more from its previous votes.
All indications point to a similar SPD loss in the year's last major state election, in Hesse in September. This would mean not only forfeiture by the SPD of that government, but also a conservative gain of a blocking two-thirds majority in the federal upper house, the Bundesrat.
At the same time, the faithful trade unionists, too, are threatening to abandon the SPD as recession, a financial squeeze, and the FDP's consequent insistence on cuts in social welfare spending are all curtailing redistribution.
In today's world, it seems, the SPD no longer possesses the means - as in the era of the German economic miracle - to persuade most unionists and leftists that it is at least starting to solve all problems by throwing money at them. The rising expectations of earlier decades have simply not curved down in proportion to the economic non-growth and the unemployment growth rates.
Under these circumstances the fierce quarrels within the SPD over the best platform are resuming with the opening of the new political season this fall. Left-wingers want to make common cause with the Greens while still increasing redistribution. They charge the pragmatic government wing of the SPD with selling out on old SPD principles. Mr. Schmidt's wing of the party, on the other hand, with an eye to the rising majority of conservative voters, contends that any leftward shift of the SPD would be suicidal.
A mirror argument rages within the Green Party. The Greens started out as a protest movement, and many of the party's adherents still think that it is a betrayal of their principles to make any compromise at all with the established political system. (Hence the conspicuous recent participation by a Green member of the Hamburg city assembly in a middle-of-the-night occupation of an empty house by squatters and the man's much publicized arrest.)
Other Greens believe that political trade offs within the system are the only way they can achieve any of their policy aims (and not just vent their frustrations). This could still turn out to be the dominant mood among the Hamburg Greens, who for the past three months have been negotiating possible conditions for a kind of passive toleration of the minority SPD government by the Greens.
Ironically, the one established party that seems untroubled by the Greens - even though it is the furthest removed from the Green's ideology - is the conservative Christian Democratic-Christian Social Union. Analyzing the increasingly favorable polls, leading Christian Democratic theorizer Kurt Biedenkopf argues that the working class has now prospered into a real middle class and has thus matured into conservative political leanings.
In this view, the more left-wing votes the Greens steal from the SPD and the FDP, the better: the inevitable conservative majority will just be that much more effective.