There was some much-needed good news last week, as the German Bundestag voted in favour of marriage equality for same-sex couples. Finally. But why now, after all this time? Unfortunately, Friday’s vote wasn’t a sudden manifestation of enlightenment and ‘love wins’. It was the result of cynical party politics served with some stunning hypocrisy.
Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is often portrayed as a liberal, she has consistently opposed marriage equality
First, a quick overview of how the vote came about. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is often portrayed as a liberal, she has consistently opposed marriage equality on socially conservative grounds, insisting that marriage is between a man and a woman, and even expressing concern for the wellbeing of children raised by two men or two women. But earlier in the week she indicated that the question of marriage equality should be a matter of individual conscience. The chancellor’s social-democratic coalition partners, the SPD, seized the opportunity and challenged her to allow parliamentary time for a vote the same week, before the Bundestag’s summer recess. And so at incredibly short notice, the vote went ahead: 393 MPs voted in favour of marriage equality; 226 voted against, among them Merkel (reiterating her view that marriage means man and woman). The vote was safely carried on the strength of the SPD, Left Party and Green majority, although some CDU MPs also supported legalisation. That’s the background in a nutshell — what about the political motivations?
The CDU: The socially conservative Christian Democrats have been in power since 2005 and look set to continue heading the governing coalition after September’s General Election. The question is, with whom? All the other Bundestag parties — the SPD, the Left Party and Greens — and the pro-business FDP, likely to return to parliament after September, have all made marriage equality a condition of coalition¹. As such, the free vote on marriage equality maximises the CDU’s coalition options, as the party could theoretically form an alliance with any of these parties, with the exception of the Left. Nevertheless, I’ve seen some speculation as to whether the vote was something of a ‘Schabowski moment’ for Merkel², i.e. that she was overtaken by events, but is that really the case? To be honest, I doubt it.
First, the timing of the vote effectively eliminates the issue from the election campaign. Second, the CDU can blame the rushed vote on the SPD and the red-red-green majority (a pointed and useful warning against Germany’s own ‘coalition of chaos’). Third, while the far-right AfD, opposed to marriage equality and hoping to gain its first Bundestag seats, has already declared itself Germany’s true party of conservative values, it’s doubtful whether CDU voters would switch to the AfD over this issue alone and risk the CDU losing the election. At the same time, Merkel’s own very public vote against marriage equality, and her reasons for doing so, sends a reassuring signal to other conservatives. So on balance my feeling is that this plays out rather too well for the Chancellor for it to have been anything but electioneering.
The SPD: The social democrats support marriage equality, but didn’t succeed in using their influence as junior partner to put the issue on the legislative agenda. In fact, the CDU/SPD coalition pushed marriage equality proposals from the Left Party, Greens and Bundesrat (upper chamber) back to committee over thirty times. Moreover, just one week before the vote, as the government announced the rehabilitation of men convicted under section 175 law criminalising homosexual activity (abolished in 1994), the SPD approved a last-minute caveat limiting rehabilitation to men who hadn’t engaged in homosexual activity with under-16s, even though the age of consent for heterosexuals at that time was 14. While some argue that the equal age of consent shouldn’t be applied retrospectively, many expected better from the SPD and see the party’s support of the ruling as betrayal of men convicted under this law. Furthermore, after another term as junior partner to the conservatives, the SPD is, unsurprisingly, concerned about credibility. This close to the election, the party must appear to be strong on social justice and making a difference in the coalition. With SPD chancellor candidate Martin Schultz flagging in the opinion polls, calling Merkel’s bluff and calling for a Bundestag vote ticked some important boxes. However, the CDU, by consenting to the vote, stole much of the SPD’s thunder, while the social democrats’ sudden discovery of a red-red-green majority in the Bundestag raises a few sceptical eyebrows, as it hasn’t been used (or even threatened) over other significant social justice issues, such as banning unfounded temporary work contracts.
let’s not kid ourselves about how and why this vote took place at all
All in all, the legalisation of marriage equality was dominated by electioneering. The chancellor has never championed this issue: what’s more, the conversation that apparently prompted her sudden ‘change of heart’ actually took place a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, the SPD’s rush to push through the vote before summer recess was certainly politically convenient.
For these reasons, the only conclusion I can reach is that the marriage equality vote was driven by political self-interest in the context of the approaching election. I welcome the legalisation wholeheartedly (although marriage equality certainly doesn’t mean discrimination and bigotry vanish overnight). But although real victory ultimately belongs to the long campaign for equality and of course the people now free to marry their partners, let’s not kid ourselves about how and why this vote took place at all.
¹ The Left Party’s insistence on a vote to legalise marriage equality is more likely aimed at the SPD, who the Left have frequently criticised for heel dragging on this issue.
² Gunther Schabowski will be remembered as the East German politician who in November 1989 announced that travel restrictions from East to West were to be lifted. When asked when it would take effect, with no further information to hand, he shrugged and said he assumed it was effective immediately. That night the Berlin Wall fell.
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