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19th Nov 2018

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Political games behind Germany's gay marriage vote

  • Gay men and women will be able to marry and adopt children after Friday's vote (Photo: Adam Lederer)

[Updated on 30 June at 10.00] Germany’s lesbians and gays received the right to wed on Friday (30 June), when a snap vote on the issue was held in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.

But their gain was the result of political machinations, whose broader ramifications remain to be seen.

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  • Merkel hoped her U-turn could give her a tactical advantage in future coalition-building. (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

At the heart of this house of cards is Angela Merkel.

In a move that surprised Germans and her own centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, the chancellor reversed her long-standing opposition to same-sex marriages in a gathering with readers of women’s magazine Brigitte on Monday.

While Germany was one of the first European countries to legalise same-sex partnerships in 2001, Merkel’s CDU has repeatedly refused to grant equal rights to same-sex unions, for fear of upsetting the party’s staunchly conservative wing, as well as its Bavarian partner, the CSU.

Merkel, who voted against the gay marriage bill on Friday, had suggested on earlier this week that MPs should be able to vote on the matter “according to their conscience”, meaning she would not force the party to vote as a bloc.

Terry Reintke, a German green MEP and campaigner for lesbian, gay, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) rights, said Merkel was motivated by strategic concerns for coalition building after the upcoming parliamentary elections on 24 September.

“She has been very open about a coalition with the greens, but we have made same-sex marriages a red line for such a government,” Reintke told EUobserver, noting that the social democrats (SPD) and liberals (FDP) had followed the green example and set the same precondition.

The green lawmaker said Merkel’s move was an attempt to pull the rug from under the feet of the other parties, who had planned to make same-sex marriage a key question of their election campaigns.

“A wide majority of Germans support same-sex marriage, so it could have been a good issue to mobilise voters with,” she noted.

According to a recent poll by the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, 83 percent of respondents in Germany support same-sex marriage.

Tough questions

Merkel would also have had to face tough questions on the CDU's stance just to have to change her mind after the elections, if she were to enter a coalition with the greens, social democrats or liberals.

The social democrats, however, managed to upend Merkel’s plans by putting the vote on the agenda already this Friday, which is the last session of the German parliament before the elections.

The SPD had only last Sunday pledged to make the introduction of same-sex marriages a key issue of their campaign - an issue which some linked to Merkel's statement on Monday.

The bill sailed through the parliament on Friday, where a broad majority of MPs supported same-sex marriage.

The fact that the vote was held already on Friday, and not after the elections, seemingly displeased Merkel.

On Wednesday, she told Wirtschaftswoche, a German business weekly, that the decision on same-sex marriages had been “drawn into a party political debate" and that this was “sad and … completely unnecessary.”

Three quarters of CDU voted against the bill, meaning that Merkel could come under fire from her MPs as well as the sister-party CSU.

All the credit

Reintke worried that Merkel could still end up getting the credit for same-sex weddings, rather than the progressive politicians and gay rights activists who had campaigned on the issue for decades.

“Of course I am happy we are getting this right,” said Reintke.

“But the way it was introduced is like an act of mercy from heterosexuals, instead of a human right that each of us holds ... human rights shouldn't be treated in such an instrumental way. This time we stand to win, but what if a rollback of rights could take place equally fast?".

She said there were already signs from the far-right that they would use the vote to mobilise their voters.

Birgit Sippel, a German social democrat and MEP, told EUobserver that it had confused her party to suddenly lose a key election question.

“But on the other hand, it shows we are able to introduce same-sex marriages just a week after singling it out as a core issue at our congress,” Sippel said.

Was she afraid of a backlash similar to the one in France?

The then president, Francois Hollande hurriedly introduced gay marriages to kick-start his five-year reign on a progressive note, but his bid ended up triggering massive street protests, known as la Manif pour tous.

Sippel said no.

“This vote may have come suddenly. But we have had the debate for years, both in society and in the parliament. The CDU has blocked previous attempts, but the bills, all the legal solution, they have been discussed and developed for years.”

The bill will now be signed by president Frank-Walter Steinmeier before entering into force. The first same-sex marriages in Germany could take place in September.

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