Gerhard Schroeder and ‘liberals’

As you may have seen, the German Constitutional Court affirmed the dissolution of parliament last month, and as a result, the early-term general elections will go ahead on September 18.

I intend at some point to say something about the dispute itself in the case before the Constitutional Court, though that is hampered by lack of ability to read German. The short story is that the Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, sort of engineered his own defeat in a confidence vote in order to go to the elections (which his party surely will lose). Aside from the party just being desperate to get out of government for a bit before its popularity slides any further, an underlying political reason for the no-confidence vote was Schroeder’s lack of support for his government’s policies from within his own party.

But rather than go in detail into the interesting constitutional issues this case has raised, I wanted to just rant for a moment about one thing that bugs me, and that I see a lot in coverage of European news. Here is a line from today’s LA Times article:

The chancellor’s term was to expire next year, but he called for a new poll after Social Democrats lost control of a key state and it became apparent that liberals in his party would not back his economic and social reforms.

The emphasis is mine. Now, what is wrong with this? Well, the conflation of ‘liberal’ and ‘left.’ This is done all the time in the US, which is bad enough. But when reporting on a European country, where ‘liberal’ has a very distinct meaning—that is, distinct from ‘left’—this conflation just fails to inform people about what the political controversy is.

For the record, in Germany the party known conventionally as ‘liberals’ is the Free Democratic Party, which will form part of the next government, if it and the center-right Christian Democrats can win a majority of seats. (It is not a sure thing, but that is another story.)

Those “economic and social reforms” that Schroeder is trying to pursue are liberal: opening markets, reducing government protection and streamlining labor policy. Those within the Social Democratic Party—Schroeder’s party—who are balking are not liberals. They are, well, social democrats. Sort of makes sense, right? Some of the more committed social democrats in the Social Democratic Party do not like the fact that their leader is pushing liberal reforms in their name. (Greens, in coalition with the Social Democrats, generally do not like the reforms, either; Greens are also not liberals, at least on the dimension of economic policy.)

Well, at least it makes sense if you do not assume (even implicitly) that all market-oriented reforms are ‘conservative’ and opposition to them is therefore ‘liberal,’ as this Times reporter (and no doubt, many an American newspaper reader) seems to assume.