When four ministers of the Free Democratic Party suddenly pulled out of the cabinet on September 17, West Germany's 13-year-old coalition government had to collapse.
On September 20, Chairman of the Christian Democratic Union Helmut Kohl, Chairmah of the Christian Social Union Franz Josef Strauss and Chairman of the Free Democratic Party Hans-Dietrich Genscher met in Bonn and decided to present a "constructive motion of no confidence" and to replace Chancellor Helmut Schmidt with Helmut Kohl. In a major political development following the Schmidt government's collapse, it was decided to move up the general elections to March 6 next year.
The contradictions and disputes among the ruling Social Democratic and Free Democratic Parties are of long standing. Representing different interests, the two parties have serious differences over how to extricate West Germany from its economic crisis, especially regarding unemployment and budget deficits.
In recent months the two-party coalition nearly broke apart over the 1982 and 1983 budgets. Although the two sides reached a compromise agreement in July, two months later they openly disagreed on how to solve the issue of the 10-billionmark deficit in the budget. The Social Democratic Party favoured an increase in loans and taxes to compensate budget deficits, but the Free Democratic Party advocated cutbacks in spending and public welfare. A stalemate ensued.
Chancellor Schmidt openly criticized the Free Democratic Party at cabinet meetings. In a September 9 state-of-the-nation address to parliament, Schmidt provoked a split with his ruling partners by saying that those ministers of the Free Democratic Party who did not agree with his policy should pull out from the government.
On September 12, Economics Minister Otto Lambsdorff, in violation of usual cabinet practice, made public an economic memorandum to Chancellor Schmidt criticizing the government's economic policy. He also demanded a big reduction in public welfare. The disputes sped up the process of dissolution.
The Schmidt government's position was weakened by many factors. The fundamental one was the continuous economic depression which put the government in an inextricable predicament.
Continuous Economic Depression
After the oil crisis of the 70s, West Germany's economy turned from a slow growth into a decline. The total value of the national economy in 1981 was 0.3 percent less than that of 1980.
Unemployment has sharply increased. In August this year 1.8 million people were unemployed, the most in 33 years. The Federal Labour Bureau predicted that by the end of this year the number of unemployed will be more than 2 million, more than twice the 1980 number.
In addition to this, the national debt has greatly expanded. Last year the budget deficit was 39 billion marks. Because of the need to borrow money to cover the large deficit, the state debt grew to 532 billion marks by the end of 1980, 30 percent of the gross national product.
West German economic circles say that there is no sign of economic recovery.
Party Loses Support
With the economy continuously on the decline, the contradictions inside and outside the ruling party have become sharp. The Social Democratic Party lost many state and local elections. Many of its members have withdrawn from the party.
The opposition Christian Democratic Union has grown. It now has over one million members, 10 percent more than the Social Democratic Party. It controls five of 10 states and West Berlin. Recent public opinion polls show that if the general elections were held now, the opposition party would win 53.7 percent of votes, the Social Democrats would get 31.4 percent and the Free Democratic Party would have 5.1 per cent. The Free Democratic Party was afraid that if it remains allied with the Social Democratic Party, it will lose even more support. So it decided to change its partner. In the state elections in Hesse on September 26, it publicly turned to the Christian Democratic Union. This was a signal for a nationwide realignment. But the Free Democratic Party suffered a big defeat in the Hesse elections. This has sharpened its internal conflicts and is unfavourable for its new coalition's potential to replace the Schmidt government.
With the end of the coalition government which started in 1969, the contention between the various political forces on the Bonn political stage will become sharper and more complicated.