Driving for new rights, states challenge Germany's federalism

Regional leaders are calling for a redistribution of power, seeking latitude that others worry could upset the West's long-successful social equilibrium

THE rapid transformation of Germany from authoritarian menace into stable democracy after World War II is one of the greatest sociopolitical achievements of this century, and arguably counts among the largest successes of modern history.

Underpinning Germany's metamorphosis has been the Basic Law, or constitution, that enshrines a federal system with carefully weighted checks and balances on central authority. The federal system, in turn, created the stability for the nation's remarkable postwar economic recovery.

But now - as a united Germany girds for a new age without cold-war-era constraints on foreign and domestic policy - the federal system is coming under pressure for change.

States are driving to win more rights from the federal government. Meanwhile, partisan politics could challenge federalism's status quo by creating legislative gridlock in the Bundesrat, or upper chamber of Parliament.

Discontent with the distribution of power is simmering in regions such as Bavaria, a southern state with a strong libertarian tradition. (Bavaria dances to its own polka, right.) Some state leaders argue post-cold-war conditions require realigning the federal system.

Defenders of the existing model counter that tinkering with the system could create long-term problems that affect everyone.

``No one should welcome this kind of struggle over power, least of all the economy,'' wrote Hans Peter Stihl, head of the Bonn think tank German Industry and Trade Council, in the Handelsblatt business newspaper.

``It [the economy] needs a reliable and an as uniform as possible legal framework to survive international competition,'' Mr. Stihl continued. Expanding states' rights would mean ``Germany's industrial competitiveness would then be at the mercy of a clumsy bureaucracy.''

A decrease in German competitiveness could have broad consequences. The Continent's mightiest economy will be pivotal in forging a prosperous European Union. But Bonn's ability to guide that process could diminish if its economy slips.

German federalism's roots reach back to the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. The end of that war confirmed the emergence of powerful European nation-states, paving the way for the continental balance-of-power games of the next three centuries.

Germany served as the Thirty Years War's primary battleground. Afterward, the region developed as a buffer for great powers of the day, and a unified German state did not immediately take shape. Instead, inhabitants formed strong area ties as they rebuilt their war-ravaged societies.

THE war also gave rise to a yearning for stability, paving the way for authoritarian rule. But even as Bismarck's Prussia came to dominate Germany in 1871, regional interests had to be taken into account.

This century's two world wars smashed the old authoritiarian order, but postwar West Germany promoted the sense of regionalism in its federal system to prevent the return of a strong central power.

The wide reach of modern communications has diminished regional loyalty, but such allegiances have not faded entirely. ``People identify with their individual state rather than Germany as a whole,'' says Prof. Heinz Laufer, dean of political science at the University of Munich.

In another move to limit centrification, the framers of Germany's Basic Law incorporated aspects of a widely held desire for social equilibrium into West Germany's new federal system. As a result, German states, at least in the west, enjoy a common standard of living not prevalent in the United States, where the differences between rich and poor states are stronger.

States may soon expand their powers. A bill passed by the lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag, would permit states to implement local legislation in a greater number of spheres, on condition there is no conflict with existing federal rules.

The bill is almost certain to win Bundesrat approval, meaning that states may soon introduce contrasting local laws on areas such as crime fighting and economic regulation. The federal Constitutional Court would resolve any dispute between federal and state legislation.

``Germany has always been better off when it has been decentralized,'' says Johann Boehm, Bavaria's minister for federal and European affairs. ``It makes sense to try to go about problem solving in managable units.''

Yet changes could ultimately upset equilibrium among states, serving as a potential source of social tension. They could also divert the judiciary's attention from other important matters, experts say.

Karlheinz Niclauss, dean of Bonn University's political science department, says financial considerations are behind the states' push. The 11 western states currently need to subsidize the five states of the former East Germany. That is causing some western state leaders to agitate for more influence in the way revenue is raised and dispersed, Mr. Niclauss says.

``What we're facing now is finding a new system of distribution of funding between the federal and state level,'' he says.

While the states wrestle with Bonn over power, the Bundesrat is potentially developing into a new forum for political struggle. The chamber is now dominated by the opposition Social Democrats, who are blocking an increasing amount of legislation coming out of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat-controlled Bundestag. The Social Democrats could increase their hold over the Bundesrat. If Mr. Kohl wins reelection on Oct. 16, opposition control could increase states' bargaining power with the Bonn government.

Wrangling between Bonn and the states will likely extend beyond the election. ``They will have a tough campaign after the campaign.'' Niclauss says.

Mr. Boehm, the Bavarian minister, agreed that states face an uphill struggle to broaden their authority. ``The federal government controls the [budgetary] purse strings,'' he says. ``It can buy jurisdiction.''

He downplays the danger of the push for greater states' rights. ``One of the good things about our federal system is that everybody participates in decisionmaking and thus people implement decisions that are taken,'' he says. ``A disadvantage can be that it is more expensive and takes more time to change.''

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