Published on Saturday, November 17, 2001 by the New York Times
Pressing Greens, German Leader Wins Historic Vote on Sending Troops to Afghanistan
by Steven Erlanger
BERLIN, Nov. 16 — The German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, won his game of chicken today with his junior coalition partner, the Greens, forcing them to support the government in a confidence vote over German participation in the war in Afghanistan.
On one level, the vote was crucial, even historic, because it gave Parliament's approval to the deployment beyond Europe of German troops in a combat role for the first time since 1945 — even if few of them are expected to be asked to fight. On another level, however, the narrowness of the margin showed how far this German government has still to travel to become the reliable foreign-policy partner that Mr. Schröder wants it to be.
Mr. Schröder won the vote of confidence with 336 votes, only 2 more than the simple majority that he needed, after four Green Party legislators opposed to the war reluctantly reversed themselves and backed the coalition. One Social Democrat who opposed the deployment decided to quit her party and vote independent.
Mr. Schröder's coalition with the Greens, which survives for now, looks badly wounded. He won, but he did so by forcing the Greens to sacrifice principle for power and appear to be hypocrites.
A Green Party congress next weekend could still break the government apart. Much of the party is opposed to the war in Afghanistan and angry about the compromises that power, and Mr. Schröder, have forced upon them.
The coalition could also limp along until elections next year. But many Greens worry that they may not do well enough in those elections to remain in Parliament.
"I'm delighted to be able to continue to do my work for Germany," Mr. Schröder told a news conference after the vote. "This decision shows that when things get serious, this coalition sticks together."
Mr. Schröder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, a Green, see Germany's support for the United States in the war against terrorism as a test of their generation, whose liberal politics were forged in anti- Vietnam War protests and the mood of revolution that swept western Europe in 1968. Speaking in the debate today, Mr. Schröder said: "Through this contribution the united and sovereign Germany meets its growing responsibility in the world."
But the conservative leader Edmund Stoiber of Bavaria, a likely challenger to Mr. Schröder in the next elections, said: "The seeds of destruction have been planted in this coalition." Michael Glos, another conservative, told Mr. Schröder, "If you break someone's spine, you can't expect them to support you further down the road."
The agony of the Greens was palpable, with the eight members opposed to the deployment deciding to split their votes to keep the coalition alive. One key Greens deputy, Hans- Christian Ströbele, who voted no, said: "This was an enormous decision, almost a martyrdom," adding: "I'm in the schizophrenic situation that I voted `no,' but was satisfied with the result."
Gregor Gysi of the Party of Democratic Socialists, the former East German Communist Party, which has come against the war, was sarcastic about the Greens. They voted for the war, he said, "because of their fear of losing their little mandate."
Wolfgang Gerhardt of the liberal Free Democrats — the party to which Mr. Schröder might turn for a new coalition if and when his partnership with the Greens falls apart — said the Greens had no realistic alternative to the military campaign. "Applying psychotherapeutic cures to terrorists will not suffice," he said.
Mr. Fischer, the Green foreign minister, had threatened to resign if his party voted against deployment. "This coalition has decisively renewed the republic," he said in the debate.
But the Green leaders are much more centrist than ordinary party members, up to 70 percent of whom oppose the war as the wrong response to terrorism and are deeply skeptical of what they consider American imperialism, both military and cultural. The grass roots will be heard from at next weekend's party congress.
Today's ballot was complicated, because Mr. Schröder made it a vote of confidence in his government, only the fourth time that a postwar German chancellor had done so. He could have easily won a simple vote on deployment with the support of the opposition — the conservatives, and the Free Democrats.
But Mr. Schröder understood late last week that to win a vote on such a fundamental issue without a majority in the ruling coalition would damage him badly. For a good strategist, he seemed to fumble. Initial efforts to twist elbows failed, forcing him to hold this vote of confidence and compelling the Greens to choose between opposition and power.
By law, the German lower house, or Bundestag, must approve the deployment of German troops abroad.
Mr. Schröder needed every vote, and Thursday night, he tried to reassure himself that Nina Hauer, a legislator due to give birth, would be present. Rubbing her stomach, Mr. Schröder joked: "If the baby comes, it will mean we have one vote more." Ms. Hauer asked a fellow deputy, a gynecologist, to sit next to her.
Should the coalition with the Greens fail, Mr. Schröder has "more options," as he said today. He could form a new coalition with the Free Democrats or ask for early elections.
His support for the United States and the war has increased his popularity inside the country, and the conservative opposition, the Christian Democrats, are in a leadership battle. An election about Germany's role in the world would suit Mr. Schröder better than one focused on the declining domestic economy, which is slipping into recession, and the unemployment rate, which continues to rise.
But Mr. Schröder is also concerned that Washington not widen the war, which would cause him significant political problems. Asked on television tonight about a war beyond Afghanistan, Mr. Schröder said, "Britain, France, Germany and others agree with each other that this would be wrong to do."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company