President Horst Koehler agreed overnight to dissolve the German
parliament in preparation for early elections on 18 September, which
are expected to bring the opposition Christian Democrats to power (here).
This despite the fact that the German constitution provides for fixed
terms. No election is due until next year, and chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder still has a clear majority.

So what happened? Having decided that he wanted an early election,
Schroeder last month engineered a vote of no confidence in his own
government. The president then had to decide whether this genuinely
made the government unworkable, and if so, agree to a dissolution –
which he has now done. (The Greens, Schroeder’s coalition partners,
objected to this sham, but he just presented this as further evidence
of difficulty in governing!)

The problem is that although in theory the president has a discretion
– just as some have argued that the governor-general in Australia has
a discretion to refuse an early election – in practice he has no
choice. If the governing party refuses to carry on, but has a majority
in parliament that can prevent anyone else from forming a government,
there is simply no alternative to an election.

The issue has not yet come up in NSW or Victoria, which now
have fixed terms, but one day it will. There’s no doubt that imperfect fixed terms
are better than terms that aren’t fixed at all. But unless the
legislature is separate from the government, as in the US,
it’s impossible to rule out political manipulation of election dates.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey