At last, a week out from polling day, the German federal election is starting to get interesting. To this point, even the most tragic of political tragics (guilty, your honour) has had precious little to enjoy.
True, the election has been called a year early, because the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD) lost a state election very, very badly and decided that it needed a new mandate. And, for a while, there was some doubt about whether this was constitutional and we waited a couple of weeks for the usually-ceremonial President to decide that it was.
Then there were the usual gaffes — the leader of the Bavarian conservatives slagging off at East Germans; the would-be treasurer offering ever-wilder visions of the future to an already somewhat skittish public. For foreigners (guilty, again), there was the interesting question of whether the opposition coalition being headed by a single, childless woman and a gay man was more surprising than the governing coalition being lead by two straight men who have seven marriages between them.
But honestly, the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) under Angela Merkel was so far ahead in the polls that it was hard to take it all very seriously. The big question seemed to be whether she would need a coalition partner at all (admittedly a pretty rare state of affairs).
And then, it all started to change. The polls started to wobble, and then to trend. Merkel and the CDU have dropped from 45 per cent support to 40 per cent; Schroeder and the SPD drifted up from 30 per cent to 35 per cent, taking the gap between the two from 15 per cent to 5. Now that’s an election!
The turning point seems to have been last weekend’s TV debate between the two leaders where, although Merkel did better than expected (she’s not really good at that sort of thing), and the commentators were talking her performance up, it seems that the viewing public (which was measured in the millions) were more interested in the content — and were not much impressed by her.
There is not much between the policies of the two main players. Germany managed to avoid the neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s. The CDU Chancellor during that period did little of note (well, OK, the [re]unifaction of the two Germanies, sure). This left Schroeder and his team the task of ‘reform’, and so they set off following the paths blazed by Thatcher, Hawke, et al. And it was all pretty ugly.
Schroeder’s grandly named reform program (Agenda 2010/Hartz IV) cut into the welfare state’s protections for jobs, unemployment benefits and health, producing demonstrations of something like half a million people, and 100,000 resignations among SPD members. And far from producing more jobs, or an improved budget bottom line, things got worse on all fronts. Life for most Germans got a little worse, and for some, a lot worse.
What Merkel plans is unclear. She has been playing her cards close to her chest, hoping presumably to coast to power and then reveal all. All this has done is excite fear, although it is not clear that she is a Thacherite in any real sense, or that she has secret plans to unleash anything at all.
Which helps to explain one of the odder predictions being made: namely, that the government after September 18 could be a ‘grand coalition’ of the CDU and the SDP (or even vice versa). To outsiders, the idea of the two main parties governing together seems preposterous. But it has been done in the past, and in the absence of any serious differences of opinion, it could well come to that.
Certainly a coalition of one sort or another is likely; increasingly so. And here there are some really interesting possibilities. There are three small parties in Germany that matter. All of them are polling about 6 or 7 per cent and need 5 per cent to be represented in the German Parliament, or Bundestag.
The FDP are liberals in both social and economic terms; an old party, and the obvious and expected partner for the CDU.
The Greens, founded in 1978 and one of the world’s most successful green parties, have been in coalition with Schroeder’s SPD for the past four years. Their leader, and most prominent member, is Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Minister. The old split between the fundis and the realos (which is to say, between those committed to the fundamental principles of the party and reluctant to exercise state power versus those committed to a more realistic path of participation and compromise [insert ‘maddies’ versus ‘sellouts’ here]) has long been resolved in favour of the latter. There seemed little danger in this strategy, politically; after all, where else would left-wing voters go?
Enter the really interesting new player — Die Linke (The Left). A 2005 fusion of the SPD lefties who walked out after Hartz IV, with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), Die Linke has presented itself to the electorate as a socialist party for the democratic era. The PDS is the old East German Communist Party, and strong in the east. As well it might be — unemployment there hovers at about 20 per cent in some states, and at 30 per cent in some hard-hit regions (and this in a part of the country where most adults still remember the days of 100 per cent employment, 100 per cent health care, quality schools and hospitals).
At one point Die Linke was polling 12 per cent, and while this has declined, the party remains significant. It offers a genuine alternative, it talks about people’s needs and — and this is the really striking fact — it is winning eastern workers away from the far right parties (which are too small to win seats but which have been a noticeable presence on the political scene in the south and east). Make no mistake, here is a party of the Left that is starting to do what very few have been able to do anywhere in the world — appeal to workers and those who have lost out under globalisation and neo-liberalism from a left-wing stance. Whatever else happens this coming weekend, the east is the region and this is the party to watch, now and into the future.
A prediction. Historians know better than to make predictions, but sometimes we can’t help ourselves. If you want to put money on the outcome, my advice would be: don’t. (Besides, why haven’t you given it to the Katrina relief fund?)
But if you want to have a ‘notional’ flutter — Merkel to win more votes and more seats, but without a majority. Beyond that — it’s anyone’s guess.
Next week Graham Willett will do the reckoning on the German election.
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