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Germany’s Momentous Election

Michael Naumann
2 September 2002

Michael Naumann, Publisher of die Zeit

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(click on highlighted days for corresponding diary entries)

Read Michael Naumann’s day-to-day account of the German election 2002.


Day 1: Countdown to the election

Three more weeks to go until the elections on 22 September, and Germany may find itself caught in a historical time warp. This has already worked its strange magic on other European countries – returning them after rather fruitful years of modernisation, and painful fiscal repair jobs by social democratic governments, back to conservative rule.

The pollsters have the incumbent Gerhard Schröder and his Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) two points, some of them three points, behind Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian candidate of the conservative party CDU and its Bavarian sister CSU, jointly known as the ‘Union’. The German parliamentary system does not, as in Britain or America, elect its representatives by ‘first past the post’. Every citizen has two votes. The first directly elects a representative. The second goes to a party list of candidates. Overall, each party succeeds in proportion to their percentage of the list vote, provided they get more than five per cent. It sounds complicated, it is complicated, yet it seems to work.

This system will be put to the test. Neither the Left nor the Right, neither the Social Democrats nor the Christian Democrats, will gain an absolute majority. The final outcome will be decided by the success or not of each one’s potential coalition partners. The Greens and their charismatic Joschka Fischer can only be partners with Schröder’s SPD, with whom they are currently in coalition. At the moment, though, they do not look as if they will be able to sustain the absolute majority, which they jointly gained in 1998 after sixteen years of Helmut Kohl. The liberal FDP – a lobbyist party of middle-class voters, from dentists to lawyers – hopes to get ten per cent. Its only purpose in political life is to enable a larger party to govern, picking up the crumbs of power at the cabinet table. It intends to corral enough voters – and move Edmund Stoiber into the Chancellery.

This points to the decisive factor in the power-game, the small post-communist PDS, formerly dominated by Gregor Gysi, who, alas, left his comrades only a few weeks ago, under a cloud, to return to private life as a lawyer. Within a few weeks, support for the PDS dropped from seven per cent to the fatal five per cent hurdle. If they fail to make it into parliament, Stoiber might indeed become Germany’s next Chancellor.

The election is evolving into a presidential-type campaign, including two television debates between the candidates. This has brought all the shenanigans of American campaigning into Germany. A country – that for many years was content with an octogenarian such as Konrad Adenauer, who was made for everything except television, and succeeded by professional politicians such as Helmut Schmidt and physically mountainous father figures such as Helmut Kohl – has overnight turned its attention to superficialities such as the suntan, hair colour, body language, TV-charisma or marital life of its potential leaders. Belatedly, Germany’s top politicians have now acquired their own spin-doctors, cosmetic advisors, tailors and ad-men – their masters of surface and polish. No wonder, then, that up to 30 per cent of the voters are still undecided who to vote for. Perhaps their coiffeurs hold all the answers?

The issues, however, are clear: high unemployment, over four million people, mostly in East Germany; the exploding costs of the health system; a lack of growth induced by over-regulated markets, high labour costs and the global economic slump. All this adds up to an autumn of German discontent, albeit on a high level. No one is starving. To be unemployed in Germany means to exist on a standard of living way above that of our employed neighbours in the East or in the South of Europe. The German welfare state is alive and kicking, and broke. It is too expensive and everybody knows it. Nobody, however, wants to bear the brunt of change. This, then, is what this election campaign is all about: who will tell the truth to the voters?

Answer: Not the politicians.

How shall we get out of the rut of minimal economic growth and rising debts? Both party leaders know that he who advocates the necessity of harsh changes in our social system will lose the election.

Never have there been more essays, articles, books, talk shows and public utterances about the need for reforms in Germany than in these days. And never has there been a stronger resistance by everyone to the consequences of change. Employers and trade unions alike are entrenched in their classical positions.

Nothing moves – with the exception of the rivers and lakes of East Germany, which inundated whole regions and cities such as Dresden a few weeks ago. In August, in the worst natural disaster ever visited upon the area, Saxonia looked like Bangladesh during a monsoon. Schröder was able to project his managerial qualities in this emergency, promising billions, which still have to be scratched from the bottom of the budgetary barrel. Stoiber, who belatedly hurried to the region to lift some sandbags, came in only second best. Schröder’s chances rose. For the post-communists, there was no way to blame the natural disaster on imperialist manipulations of yore. Their prospects seem to have gone down the drain. In the meantime, Schröder flew to Johannesburg for a seven hour stay and returned over night into the national scramble for power. Who wants to be a politician these days?


Day 2: A bad week for Schröder?

This is not a good week for the incumbent German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and his coalition-government. The German stock market index, DAX, dropped to under 3,500, down nearly five per cent on Tuesday. One bearish day eats the next. The construction industry is announcing 8,000 insolvencies for 2002 and the loss of another 80,000 jobs. Since 1995 more than 817,000 construction jobs have gone. 40 per cent of the whole branch. Many of those fired reappear only on the black labour-market or return to Portugal, Poland, Ireland or Turkey.

Unemployment figures for August will be announced on Wednesday and another terrible record is in the air. Over four million again. And once again, Germany’s national deficit for the year 2002 might break the barrier of three percent of Gross National Product imposed by the Maastricht agreement to ensure monetary stability in the new continent wide currency zone of the Euro.

All of this adds up to good copy for the conservative press, particularly Springer’s Die Welt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For example: the government made the first (and belated) attempt to introduce private financing into the century-old, Bismarckian social security system, which has been on the brink of bankruptcy for over a decade. This, it turns out, will be a challenge to Germany’s smaller life-insurance companies: they will not profit from their new insurance policies for seven to eight years. Of course, the whole private sector welcomed the new business opportunities when Schröder’s government passed this law – which it did against strong opposition from its own welfare-oriented party. The social insurance system is based on inter-generational solidarity. Ironically, it was introduced by Bismarck to stem the political tide of social democracy in his time. But it was copied by most industrialised nations and is now a bedrock of social democratic attitudes. So Schröder’s reform was warmly welcomed by conservatives and liberal pundits. Now, however, a few weeks before the election, the conservative press sings a very different tune: “Schröder’s social security system drives insurance companies into bankruptcy!” (Die Welt).

German political journalism has always relied on an exceptional separation of commentary and factual reporting. Of course, subscribers know in general what to expect. During election times, however, the balance shifts. The selection of news by the leading dailies tends to become partial and partisan – on both sides. But while the conservative press can barely abstain from prematurely addressing the conservative candidate Stoiber as Herr Bundeskanzler, the more liberal print media like the Süddeutsche Zeitung have chosen a slightly ironic reporting voice. Clearly, their love-affair with this government is over: even if they do not love the alternative either.

At the end of the day, the voters’ decision might depend on the upcoming second television debate between Schröder and Stoiber, this Sunday. The last one was watched by 18 million – hundreds of thousands of viewers are claimed to have fallen asleep. Still, it was a record.

Pollsters today are reporting a small drop in ratings for the Christian Democrats – they still seem to be two points ahead of the Social Democrats. The post-communist PDS is said to be slightly recovered, ready to cross the five per cent-hurdle by a few thousand votes. In the meantime the constant barrage of the public by the pollsters’ predictions is beginning to irritate the politicians: Do these demoscopic numbers only reflect public attitudes and political likings, or do they also form those attitudes? It would be a miracle if they did not – so that’s another and rather decisive realm of res publica removed from the direct influence of politicians.

Schröder is back from Johannesburg – a conference of no measurable influence on the election campaign (nor, one fears, on the future of the planet). His government has done more than any other to reduce CO2-emissions. The Greens proudly point out that the production of huge windmills has created 150,000 jobs and might lead to renewable energy-consumption rising to 15 percent within the next decade. The Bavarian candidate Stoiber holds up impressive figures pertaining to ‘his’ ecological production of electricity. That’s easy; he has got the Alps in his state and plenty of high-level water reservoirs and dams.

If Schröder somehow overcomes this week’s onslaught of bad news, his chances for catching up will grow. His main difficulty right now lies in regaining the lost votes of almost a million supporters of his 1998 candidacy in the Ruhr valley of North-Rhine-Westfalia. This was once the stronghold of Social Democracy in Germany. It used to be proletarian territory. Around the coal-mines, Germany’s left blossomed and survived Hitler (“Flying Tommy, spare our souls / we’re just mining here for coal. / Go and knock on Berlin’s door / they all wanted total war.” A ditty reported by Hitler’s Secret Service in 1944 from heavily bombarded Essen). The proletariat does not exist any more in Germany – or at least it does not feel like it. Party loyalties to the Social Democrats have faded at the community level. Tens of thousands of its members left the SPD over recent years. Younger members under 30 have become a rarity.

Indeed the SPD’s slogan of 1998 appealed to a “neue Mitte” (the new middle). It promised modernisation or, as Schröder privately joked: Die neue Mitte drives Porsche. As it turns out, a Porsche remains unaffordable for 98 percent of the population and high unemployment figures could not be budged by either clever sloganeering or by small improvements in legal working conditions.

Schröder, who likes to point out that he was an excellent centre forward as a soccer player – which is true – is now hoping for the second half time. Stoiber, who is a member of the board of the indomitable FC Bayern, wants to stop the game here and now. His attempt to out-soccer Schröder, however, took a bad turn recently, when he kicked a hard ball into the face of an innocent elderly bystander, a loyal lady, whose glasses broke under the impact, yet who excused the hapless player, while blood streamed from her nose: she would vote for Stoiber nevertheless. How German is that? Schröder’s supporters are less ardent these days. On the other hand, he is a better shot.


Day 3: The Iraqi Card

“Doing nothing is not an option”, president Bush declared in his recent conference on Iraq with prominent US legislators.

Yet the amazing public meanderings, reflections, exchange of letters, innuendoes, leaks, posterings and denials of his administration regarding a possible invasion of Iraq have made it totally unclear what precise other option the American President has in mind. Unfortunately, this has led – in the middle of the German election campaign – to what is becoming the deepest rift between Germany and the United States since 1961 (when John F. Kennedy definitely knew that Khrushchev was about to have a wall built through Berlin, and refrained from strong diplomatic counter-measures).

Kennedy escaped from public wrath here with a rousing speech in Berlin, declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Schröder is today playing a Gaullist card in the diplomatic stand off with the United States: “Je suis allemand!” In his words: “Under my leadership Germany will not participate in an intervention in Iraq”. His party’s (the SPD’s) General Secretary Franz Müntefering – has even ruled out the possibility if there is a mandate for military sanctions against Saddam provided by the UN Security Council. This is new stuff in the German-American relationship, which, in the past, has been defined by loyalty, shared values and, recently, by 16 billion Deutschmarks to help pay for President Bush Senior’s Gulf war of 1991.

German-American relations have deteriorated in direct proportion to the pronounced unilateralism embraced by Washington since Clinton’s departure. The list of complaints has grown: Kyoto, WTO, the International Criminal Court – and now this. At first, Schröder’s statements on Iraq in his various campaign speeches, were belittled by the Bush administration as just that; campaign talk. In the meantime, however, America’s ambassador in Berlin, the former US-Senator Coats, delivered a strong worded note of his government’s displeasure, making it public simultaneously. Schröder they answered in kind.

But Germany’s new foreign policy has not just been a response to America. Schröder took a stronger interest after a couple of years in government, and wrested some major issues away from his Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. He set out to enhance German-Russian relations. Siberian gas and oil now provide approximately 30 percent of Germany’s energy consumption. Huge private German investments, going back to former Chancellor Kohl’s negotiations with Russia during re-unification, are slowly paying off, and Moscow is repaying credits to the Federal Republic after the usual prompting. Putin speaks German fluently, as he should as a former KGB spy once stationed in East Germany. He and Schröder get along well – the latter having spent last year’s Russian Christmas with the Putin family. Holy Night in Moscow.

In contrast, Schröder’s personal relationship with George W. Bush is of no political relevance. 9/11 came as a huge shock to Germany. A hundred thousand Berliners expressing their sympathy in a spontaneous demonstration under the Brandenburg gate. Schröder himself offered Washington his unbedingte Solidarität, his unconditional solidarity. Then, as if in an afterthought during his speech in the Bundestag, he added: “With the exception of adventures.” At that time rumours were flying through Berlin that Rumsfeld or his advisors had mulled over the possibility of a tactical nuclear air strike against Baghdad while the ruins of the WTC were still smoldering in Manhattan.

Two months later, in November 2001, Schröder put his and his government’s political life on the line, and kept his pledge of solidarity. By a very slim margin he won a vote of confidence against some opposition in his own coalition of the SPD and the Greens, and, of course, the Christian Democrats of the Bundestag, and sent special troops into the “war against terrorism” in Afghanistan. Since then, more than one thousand Germans have been stationed in Kabul and an elite unit is fighting and searching Talibans in the Hinterland.

“Your guys are doing a splendid job”, Bush told Schröder during a visit in the White House.

Things got a little complicated when his Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping, who has since resigned under a cloud of tax evasion, persuaded the Security Council of the German government to send Fuchs-tanks to Kuwait. These are armored laboratories, which can detect minimal traces of biological and chemical weapons wherever they go – useful for protecting and saving infantry after battles with dubious ammunitions. Today Schröder and his government have difficulty explaining what exactly the tanks’ purpose was and is while they remain in Kuwait. Simply put, his Defence Minister was duped by his generals, itching for action – and for a career in Brussel’s NATO bureaucracy, endorsed of course, by their American friends.

In the words of Colin Powell: “I see that there are a lot of differences” – but he was talking about his own administration’s diverse opinions on Iraq. It describes Europe’s positions just as well. While Tony Blair, whose personal relation to Schröder has changed from mutual adoration to healthy skepticism, is playing for time, wanting to present proof of Iraq’s determination to build weapons of mass destruction, the French are being French: Clearly, their tremendous business interests in Iraq would prevent them from publicly endorsing a war and they therefore don’t. On the other hand (on the Quai d’Orsay there is always another hand), France will certainly enjoy Germany being a little isolated from its old Atlantic ally, just for the fun of it.

In the past, much smaller divergencies of political interest between Germany and the United States were described as German manifestations of cultural anti-Americanism. This time, however, such arguments do not cut any ice. Neither Brent Scowcroft’s, nor Henry Kissinger’s or Zbigniew Brezinski’s opposition to a pre-emptive war could be defined as anti-American. They all pose the same question as does Schröder and his government: what kind of victory will it be when the Americans win? Has the Bush administration any feasible plan for a post-Saddam era? How many soldiers does it take to pacify the region? A million? All of them Christians?

Schröder has at least 60 percent of German voters behind him on this issue. And in the absence of other postures that encourage quick emotional identification with the incumbent, he is using the threat of war as a rhetorical flag-waver wherever he speaks on the stump. His flag being white, of course.

And his opposition? Its leader, Edmund Stoiber is not known to have any substantial foreign policy-vision. His position towards the European Union is defined by deploring Brussel’s bureaucracy, while simultaneously doing his best to lure agricultural and other European funds towards Bavaria. In this he has succeeded. Nor is Stoiber known for any anti-Russian idiosyncrasies, which used to be the norm in his home base of Munich, when the communists were in power in the East. Today one of the largest pipelines from Russia ends in Bavaria: a very persuasive argument for Realpolitik.

When Schröder first announced his clear refusal to support an attack on Iraq, Stoiber stayed quiet for a day or two, until his pollsters told him what to think. To no one’s surprise, he too then opposed a pre-emptive strike. By tomorrow, it seems certain he will have developed a new position, supporting the U.S., but making Germany’s participation in a war dependent from a mandate of the Security Council, which he knows very well will never come. Seen from abroad, this may look like a scholastic debate: How many German soldiers can sit on the tip of a needle? The answer is: ten thousand. The number of German soldiers now stationed round the world under UN mandates or in close cooperation with the United States – certainly more than any other European nation has mobilized. Tony Blair’s special relation with George W. Bush is paying off nicely for Britain in more ways than one.

Schröder said in an interview with Die Zeit last week, the change of paradigm in Germany’s foreign policy has enabled him to carve out a new position for Germany. This is an illusion. Seen from the United States, Germany, England, France and all the tiny European nations with unpronounceable names and unknown capitals are a non-entity, when it comes to the projection of serious military power. That is the exclusive privilege of the United States of Rumsfeld, Cheney and their chief, elected to the American Presidency in his brother’s beautiful state of Florida. It is an America that is a little hard to get used to. It may even not be the kind of America many Americans like.

Who would have thought, that the “war against global terrorism” would end in such global bickering? Bin Laden, if he is still alive, has dealt a defeat to all of us in the West, which seems to be getting worse from day to day.


Day 4: Straight talk – can it be true?

Today, Friday. The German papers are full of reports of what must be regarded as an unparalleled event, not only in the history of German-American relations, but of election campaigns in this country, and also the annals of diplomacy...

On Thursday, the New York Times, whose main interest in Germany is usually reserved for the history of the Holocaust, (a while ago, the German embassy in Washington counted more than 300 articles on this subject in one year) published a full-page interview with Gerhard Schröder. On what subject? His stance on the proposed pre-emptive war against Iraq.

It is astonishing enough that the media-savvy Schröder chose a forum which will definitely reach the ear, if not the eye, of the American President. It is even more surprising that the New York Times offered it to him, providing him with a fresh conduit in the highly disturbed communication channel between Berlin and Washington.

Most amazing of all: Schröder chose to speak out in a language that came straight from the shoulder – not the hip. No obscure, diplomatic circumlocutions here. Instead, this is what Schröder would have said in the Oval Office – had he been invited. How would Bush have answered?

Schröder: “I think that between us – all of us, together - we had Saddam politically isolated, and that there was a real opportunity of using diplomatic and economic pressure to get the inspectors admitted to the country again.”

Bush: “???”

Schröder: “How can you exert pressure on someone by saying to them: Even if you accede to our demands, we will destroy you? That approach, to my mind, represents a distinct change of strategy in the United States. And whatever the explanation may be - that change made things difficult for others, including ourselves.”

Bush: “???”

Schröder: “Whatever you think consultation is – it cannot mean that I get a phone call two hours beforehand, only to be told, ‘we’re going in.’ Consultation among grown - up nations has to mean not just consultation about the how and the when, but also about the whether.”

Think about it. In 1998, Schröder moved the Social Democratic Party to the centre of the political spectrum. Determined not to be accused of the same 'anti-American bias' as his SPD competitor, Lafontaine, his government cooperated in the peace mission in Kosovo.

His troops are still there. Germany’s military capacities, huge tank battles included, were designed for a conventional warfare against the Warsaw Pact. Now, they are stretched thin. The nation still has the draft - but its trucks and planes are vintage, many of them older than the soldiers who use them.

An American request for major German military involvement against Iraq was not to be expected anyhow. German soldiers would have to charter Lufthansa jets to get there (or rent Antonovs from the Ukraine). The country is already spending two billion Euros on international military missions per year. None of this is possible without close cooperation with the Pentagon and NATO.

No wonder Schröder is doubly miffed: “And that is why it is just not good enough if I learn from the American press about a speech which clearly states: We are going to do it, no matter what the world or our allies think. That is no way to treat your partners.”

So, in case his colleague in the White House thinks all of this is still campaign talk, Schröder points to the German Constitution which has served this country well since 1949: “Let me begin by saying that without a U.N. Security Council mandate, our Constitution would not permit any form of participation. That is quite clear.” He doesn’t think such a Security Council resolution is in the offing.

The conservative candidate, Edmund Stoiber, who is still keeping fairly quiet on the issue, has had a spokesman criticise Schröder for this clear message. But he is decrying the tone of it – not its content. He knows perfectly well that supporting a war on the Arabian Peninsula could cost him millions of votes on September 22.

The coming weekend will see the second and final TV debate between Schröder and Stoiber. Pundits scored their first duel as a draw, if not a victory for Stoiber. But in its latest market research, the SPD claims to have found out that Schröder’s statesmanlike body language and behaviour gives him advantage over the somewhat starchy Mr. Stoiber. (Who would have won in a television contest between Gladstone and Disraeli?)

One may bemoan these fashion-show aspects of an election campaign. One may find them intellectually disturbing, if not downright imbecile. Yet that is what modern democracy is also about.

Traditional party loyalties are vanishing in Germany. Perhaps this too can be called progress – given the emergent ideal of an open society. With it, however, comes depoliticisation: the shrinking of political interest to a preoccupation with the classical question, “What’s in it for me?”

Democracies, as Aristotle pointed out, are always endangered by issues of distributive justice. Even more so, when they are as rich as Germany. But if these matters start to be seen as meaning that there is not much to choose between the parties, then perhaps larger issues of law and justice, when applied to war and peace, might come into play.

That New York Times interview was also aimed at the German public.


Day 7: The debate - love and television

I was a young high school graduate near Hannibal, Missouri. It was the home town of the great American writer Mark Twain, where he placed the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It was there, in 1960, that I saw then vice-president Richard M. Nixon debate the young senator John F. Kennedy on television. I remember it in black and white, which it was. Those were the days when Perry Como still had his TV-show, sponsored by Kraft-cheese and “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Eisenhower played golf, mostly.

It was the original TV-format presidential show-down. Its format has survived in America, and so did the fairy tale about Nixon’s unbecoming five o’clock shadow, which supposedly cost him the election. Other people say that it was in fact 50,000 votes from Cook County, hand delivered by Chicago’s Mayor Daley (he of the immortal phrase: “Vote early – vote often.”), which gave JFK his majority. Now, political candidates are duelling on the screen in Germany, too; although this is not a presidential campaign.

The image of a Nixon who could not smile came back to me, watching Schröder’s challenger in the German election campaign, Edmund Stoiber, on last night’s televised debate. If there ever was a more bitter politician than Nixon, it must be Stoiber. Which is strange because he is Bavarian who are otherwise a very warm and funny tribe. Stoiber also corroborated Mark Twain’s dictum about the German language (which certainly was spoken at his time in central Missouri in villages and towns like Wiegehts or Hermann). Twain cracked that he had bought the complete works of Goethe in three volumes, and the last one contained all the verbs.

Some Germans may find this unfair, yet Stoiber’s convoluted syntax was the acoustic proof that the caricature lives. His capacity to turn demeaning facts about the current administration’s economic policy into labyrinthine statements, the like of which only literary historians have encountered in their perusal of baroque German church literature, was simply astonishing (and this would be the length of only the first third of one of his normal sentences).

The German language, with its capacity for obscuring, obfuscating and ambivalence, is not among the best tools for political television. On Sunday these belonged to Chancellor Gerhart Schröder, who has mastered the methods of the medium: Don’t say too much, but smile; look slightly indignant (but not overly so); try to find the camera with the red light on; never shout, or look at your opponent as if he is reciting Rilke; don’t let your body sag, keep your stomach in, never raise your finger like a schoolmarm; use your blue eyes because everything is in color – and always remember, you are in the homes of at least seven million households whose 15 million viewers don’t wish to be screamed at, whatever you say.

And that’s how it went for 80 minutes. Schröder’s and Stoiber’s position regarding a pre-emptive war against Iraq do not differ, with one exception. Schröder excluded Germany from a military alliance against Saddam even under the auspices of the United Nations. This, it seems, is a diplomatic mistake – he should have left a door open in order not to alienate himself from America completely. That is exactly what Stoiber pointed out (as predicted in our diary a few days ago). As to internal security against Islamic fundamentalism Stoiber tried a populistic tune – “We must expel 4,000 violence prone Islamic fundamentalists immediately.” Who are they? Where to? Great Britain? Schröder pointed out that the due process of law still rules in Germany.

On unemployment, Stoiber’s main theme during the TV-debate, no new proposals were made by either side. Neither told the truth about at least a quarter of the unemployed: they are engaged in the black labor market while collecting welfare-cheques. Up to twenty per cent of Germany’s GNP is now produced on the black labor market. We have two economies, just as there once were two Germanies. The shadow-economy provides better living standards for everyone, but no taxes.

The other big conundrum of German social and health policy – how to finance rising costs in health care with a shrinking and ageing population, plus unemployment and concomitant lack of funds – has been around for more than ten years. Both candidates explained the difficulties. Neither had a significant solution. Stoiber said, and this is a verbatim translation: “We need a shift of priorities towards a child”. What he meant to say was that people should make love to each other and produce more Germans, who could then finance the health care and social security checks for their parents and grandparents.

All you need is love? That, one must say, was wanting during a TV-debate, which according to pollsters, who immediately afterwards took the nation’s pulse, was lost by Mr. Stoiber by the wide margin of more than 20 per cent. Some people already prematurely claim that the election was decided last night. In Berlin’s bars and restaurants, a lot of wine glasses were raised by the ageing representatives of Die Neue Mitte, who are not so new anymore, but think that another four years of Schröder is owed to them. When Nike Wagner, great-granddaughter of Richard, raised her glass to Max Neumann, the best contemporary German painter besides Gerhard Richter and the monumental Anselm Keifer, at Berlin’s famous Paris Bar, everyone waited for Schröder to show up and join the festivities. He didn’t come (but his spokesman did), which was declared an act of sanity at 2.00 a.m. If Stoiber had shown up, the bohemians of Berlin would have consoled him. He might even have cracked a smile. For one thing is true: hard feelings have gone out of German politics. We might leave behind our reputation as true bores.

Things look better, then, for the Social Democrats and the Greens, this Monday. After the floods of August, September is sunny. And Germany’s soccer team beat Lithuania 2-0. Eat your heart out, Brazil! But, as Britain’s Harold Wilson once said, “A week is a long time in politics”. It’s even longer in a close election campaign that has less than two weeks to go.


Day 8: A Free Country?

Day two after the TV-debate between Schröder and Stoiber in Germany: 44.9 per cent of all TV-owners in the country watched it and print journalism is still busy debating who was better. Here too, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder – the conservative press sees Stoiber ahead, the liberal press claims it was Schröder who carried the day. Nobody knows for certain whether the debate has caused any dent amongst those enigmatic 30 per cent of undecided voters, who will make all the difference on election day.

Clearly, Schröder’s firm position on the Iraq question might carry him through. Just as clearly he will have to revise it, once re-elected, in order to realign Germany with France. Chirac’s level headed exposé of a potential escalation includes a U.N. resolution to get weapons inspectors back into the uncontrolled territory of Saddam’s regime, followed by an ultimatum, if he disagrees. And then, possibly, military sanctions.

In the meantime, President Bush is discovering the telephone number of Europe, whose absence Henry Kissinger once bemoaned. The President is now calling everybody, including the Danes, to consult. But he is not calling the German Chancellor.

Will an offended Schröder deny the use of German airspace for American transport planes (as Helmut Schmidt once did), in the event of a Mid-Eastern conflict? While Stoiber and most commentators openly bemoan Schröder’s intransigence, no one seems to remember that some decades ago his predecessors in Bonn – at that time extremely dependent on American firmness over the Iron Curtain and Berlin – withstood pressure from Washington to send two divisions of the Bundeswehr into Vietnam. All of this, though, took place in camera and no one understood what Dean Rusk meant when he publicly compared Vietnam with the situation in Berlin. He was simply trying to put pressure on the Germans. In vain.

In the meantime, the Greens are leading a totally personalised election campaign focused on the charismatic jogger Joschka Fischer, who, like the Grateful Dead on tour, is living out of a campaign bus. It is almost painful to watch a party, raised on a generation’s addiction to intellectual controversy and ecological utopia, simmer down into a streamlined operation. For the new generation, it has lost the initiative to the foes of globalisation: they no longer look to the Greens. Fischer’s party, nevertheless, has successfully shifted German energy policy. Within 30 years, if the next governments do not change the law, not a single nuclear power station will be running in Germany anymore.

Together with the SPD, the Greens also removed the embarrassing ius sanguinis from Germany’s constitution. This denied citizenship to those foreign applicants who could not prove their descent from German ancestors. In other words the right to citizenship depended on blood (some even claimed that a German shepherd would qualify) not residence (thus those who were born and grew up in Germany but had, for example, Turkish parents could not qualify).

For all such achievements, the most important contribution of the Greens to this government’s record has been Fischer himself. His rhetorical brilliance, his chameleon-like ability to move between his biographical identities (at party conventions a rough sweater, in parliament a three-piece suit) was surprisingly approved by a majority of the voters. He is the most popular politician in Germany. Early attempts to dethrone Fischer by the mass media, including Der Spiegel, using pictures from his occasionally violent past as a street fighter and rebel rouser in Frankfurt, simply failed. Still, dramatic photographs of Joschka the Brave battling it out with a policeman in Frankfurt must be unique in the annals of European foreign policy. Even Lenin’s first foreign minister, Chicherin, was a peaceful character. (His biography of Mozart was still available a few years ago – in West, not in East Germany).

It was Fischer’s moral argument against Milosevic’s murderous activities in Kosovo – arguments based on human rights and the special obligation rising from Germany’s own genocidal history – that changed Berlin’s foreign policy and led to the first serious military engagement of German troops “out of area”, that is outside NATO territory.

This went against the original ideological grain of the Green party. Most of its ‘fundamentalists’ have since left the movement. Undoubtedly it will wither like a sunflower in late September, if voters exclude it from political power as part of the next government. While Schröder, if he loses, will most likely lick his wounds in Hanover and then go into private business, Fischer promises to stay in parliament, come what may. His personal long-term dreams focus on the presidency of the European Commission.

And Stoiber? After defeat, he will go back to Bavaria, just as his predecessor, the unforgettable Franz-Josef Strauss, did, when he was decisively defeated at the polls by Helmut Schmidt in an election campaign which Strauss had tried to turn into a ‘choice between Freedom and Socialism’.

It sounds almost primordial, seen from today’s perspective. Socialism as a concept has totally disappeared from Germany’s political mainstream discourse – only the post-communists of the PDS cling to it. Some claim that the idea of freedom is putting on a shine. But not a single speech by either of the main political competitors seems to have any use for it – except, indeed, for passing, decorative purposes. Either we are now all free, or we have all lost our understanding of, and feeling for, the precarious character of freedom: Once you start to miss it, it’s usually too late.


Day 9: From angst to Austria

Today, the anniversary of 9/11 dominates Germany’s TV-stations and newspapers. The pictorial and editorial commemorative outpourings stir what Ronald Reagan’s prince of darkness, Richard Perle called Good old German protestant angst. He was then on the Pentagon’s pay role, and is now again. At the time Perle was addressing German reluctance to accept the stationing of Pershing-2 missiles in 1981. They would have devastated Moscow in less than an hour from ignition and produced the peace-movement that contributed in turn to the end of Helmut Schmidt’s social-democratic government. Today’s angst seems altogether more artificial. It has become a vehicle for selling newspapers and TV-shows. It is also providing an otherwise lukewarm election campaign with some emotional zest. The three major newspapers of the country do their best with four-colour reproductions of the Jerry Bruckheimer-moment, when the second jet impacted into the South tower of the World Trade Center.

Whatever the outcome of the election, one thing is clear: German/American relations have suffered severe damage in the last two weeks. Gerhard Schröder’s refusal to participate in a war against Iraq is not just clear – it seems adamant. The General Secretary of the SPD which Schröder leads, Franz Müntefering, said yesterday that Germany shouldn’t participate in a war against Iraq even if new evidence becomes available which proves that Saddam is connected with political and terrorist crimes. Thus the SPD increases its distance even from France’s strategy of slow escalation, organized through the United Nations – not to speak of expanding the rift between itself and Washington.

The SPD’s majority whip, Ludwig Stiegler, is a rare politician with fluent knowledge of Greek and Latin. He compared America’s stance towards its allies with Roman imperialism, definitely now in its Caesarian phase it seems, and added – so as not to lose a couple of millennia – that the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Dan Coates, reminded him of ambassador Abrassimov of the other empire of yore, the Soviet Union.

Probably, Dan Coates has never heard of Abrassimov and why should he? The Russian was indeed the High Commissioner of communist East Germany for many years and spoke fluent German. Neither characteristic applies to Senator Coats. He, however, has once again proven that the old days of quiet diplomacy are over. A modern ambassador writes op-ed pieces. This is Coats doing it in the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “I have just read Anthony Beaver’s book Berlin 1945: The End, with its grueling descriptions of horrors of the last weeks of war in Germany. I have a lot of understanding for the deep seated angst the Germans feel vis-à-vis the use of military force and I totally agree with the opinion that a war should be the ultima ratio in diplomacy. But ultimate does not mean never and it is a sad but undeniable fact that military action, or at least a believable threat of it, are sometimes necessary in order to prevent even larger violence and inhumanity. Germany’s own history has shown that a barbarian dictator can sometimes only be stopped by forces endangering peace and world security.” In other words, Germany finally has its own chance to stop an Adolf Hitler, albeit a smaller one.

Strangely enough the Stoiber’s CDU seems to be caught in a trap. If it distanced itself from Schröder’s position on Iraq too strongly, it is clear now that it would lose the election. On the other hand, saying almost nothing relevant on the issue does not help to improve its reputation of incompetence in the field of foreign policy – a role that for many years was filled by Hans-Dietrich Genscher the recent leader of the Free Democrats, who are the CDU’s partners.

In the meantime in Austria… Well, that’s a phrase rarely used these days. But Austria, borders Edmund Stoiber’s Bavaria, and the conservative government there crashed prematurely two days ago. It was governed by the conservative ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) in coalition with the populist FPÖ of Mr. Jörg Haider. The latter seems to have self-destructed by removing its members from the cabinet. Two years ago, Haider’s participation in the Austrian government lead to a unique and curious spectacle. The other member states of the European Union tried to punish Austria for an election result which had moved a tastelessly right-wing party, with a tendency towards neo-nazism, into power. They sought to isolate it from its dealings in the EU. Now it is recalled that Stoiber opposed such policies, just as he made no qualms of his admiration about Silvio Berlusconi.

Pollsters tell us that the last two weeks before election day are usually decided by emotional swings of the undecided voters. It is, in other words, too late now for serious argument, for peitho – that is the art of persuasion – which antiquity discovered as one of the major virtues of a good politician. Persuasion by argument and not by doxa, or opinion, is what Plato thought defines good governance. We, of course, have entered into an era mass-doxa.

The German conservatives’ strategy is to get voters to fall in with them by inducing fear and disgust with the present government. This, however, seems to contradict contemporary marketing methods. Not everybody, in other words, will buy a four-wheeler called CDU, simply because they have seen an advertisement in which another four-wheeler called SPD tumbles into a ravine in bad weather. Yes, people love security. So much is true. But they want security for themselves and perhaps for their families and relatives (and that may already go too far). In Germany, alas, they are not that interested in those four million compatriots who have no security, because they are unemployed.

A re-emergence of national solidarity occurred and showed its attractive side during the catastrophic flooding of large segments of East Germany a month ago. But it was based on visual effects – on TV-broadcasts, which moved the hearts of every citizen. There is no emotional footage of four million unemployed Germans available. And the voters seem to know that the problem will not disappear by blaming it on Schröder. How the unemployed will vote, no one really knows. Probably they won’t vote at all.


Day 10: Gut feelings and closing gaps

Today and tomorrow, there will be a budget debate in the German parliament. It will see the last personal encounter between Chancellor Schröder and opposition leader Edmund Stoiber before election day. Schröder’s Minister of Finance, Hans Eichel, is basing his budget on a 2.5 per cent growth rate for 2003 – a utopian figure for a country which has just experienced the highest number of insolvencies ever. The latter are a sad fallout of the new economy’s collapse, the global recession, and the initial availability of easy money, thanks to annual state subsidies and tax cuts amounting to 22 billion Euros annually. (A lot of companies were founded on just hope and tax-breaks, especially in East Germany).

Once more, Stoiber will use the opportunity to point to the feeble national growth rate and high unemployment figures under Schröder’s government. The facts are, however, that in the last four years of Schröder’s predecessor Helmut Kohl, the growth rate was 1.4 per cent versus Schröder’s 1.6 per cent; Kohl’s unemployment rate stood at 9.8 per cent; Schröder’s is at 9.3 per cent. And Schröder’s greatest ‘success’, the lowest inflation rate since 1963 (1.3 per cent,) has so far not even been mentioned by the incumbent himself.

Schröder’s biggest mistake was in 1998, when he promised to reduce unemployment from 4 to 3.5 millions: ‘After four years I want to measure my work against this figure.’ But why? How big is the influence of a democratic government on the economy?

His self-confidence was based on the optimistic outlook of some economists. But economists, as we all know, hardly ever get it right. In fact, in export-orientated societies like Germany where political, social, cultural and global factors intertwine, it is hard to predict the future state of the economy. Even with the executive powers of the federal government at one’s disposal, no one seems to have sufficient power to steer its course. Smaller nations like Denmark, or the Netherlands might easily readjust their economic policies, but the German economic behemoth is a bit harder to push around, to stop or to accelerate. The European Central Bank in Frankfurt found this out to its cost, when attempts to control German inflation stymied economic growth.

Therefore, unemployment figures remained almost the same. And it is not the Chancellor, either, who defines the growth of Germany’s net-income, but the autonomous price and wage policies of unions and employers. Additional market factors like the outbreak of BSE and the volatile course of the oil price or the fraudulent behavior of major American companies are beyond any European governmental influence.

Ever since Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, political managers in other Western democracies have taken up the by now battle-worn slogan ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ It is time for a quarantine of the phrase – people do not vote, after they have read economic statistics. They usually follow their gut feelings – including the most irrational ones.

And while it is true that Germany’s growth rate ranks behind every other member state of the European Union, it is also true that nations like Portugal, Ireland and others have had a lot of catching up to do. To use Helmut Kohl’s phrase, “Germany is always whining on a high level.” Indeed. Once you meet German CEOs at dinner parties or more official functions, you will hear the same melody all the time: They are depressed, on the brink of bankruptcy, blaming higher taxes, ruthless competition – the world at large and mostly: the trade unions, regulations, politicians. And worst of all, the consumers. They are not what they used to be. Unlike France or Italy, we simply are not an optimistic nation. And why should we be, with this kind of history on our shoulders?

And lest we forget it, our American friends are constantly reminding us these days: “Didn’t we give you freedom in 1945, didn’t we lift the weight of Hitler, of fascism etc. etc. off your shoulders?” And the answer is: yes, yes, yes. Now, the American President and in less opaque words conservative commentators in Washington expect Germany to come to the assistance in lifting Saddam Hussein’s weight off the shoulders of the Iraqis. Of course, one could also re-arrange the stakes at the local gas-stations there. Yet, the list of today’s quasi-Hitlers grows depressingly long, if one looks at the world map. In Angola, for instance, Chevron is doing its very best with the help of a local dictator in squeezing the last drop of oil out of the country. The horrors of the Congo would make an armed humanitarian involvement quite necessary. And those weapons of mass-destruction in the possession of an unstable and corrupt country like Pakistan – well, that is yet another strategic question, which cannot be answered by evoking the victory over Hitler and its moral consequences for the Germans.

What really needs to be improved is a stringent policy of non-proliferation. Washington’s decision to leave the ABM-treaty, however, has produced a credibility-gap when it comes to curbing the spread of weapons of mass-destruction. Those in Iraq, by the way, were produced with Western know-how, including German, of course. And sad to say, Pakistan’s ‘father of the nuclear bomb’ learned his trade in Germany. But so did Oppenheimer.

Well, we are looking at one of the closest election races in Germany’s history. Four years ago, Gerhard Schröder would have preferred a great coalition to loosen up the petrified economy and social structures of the country. Perhaps that is exactly what we are going to see, once the government is formed after September 22. At the moment SPD and CDU each have 37 per cent support amongst the voters.

This means that the equally close race between the FDP, (the Liberals), and the Greens will decide the outcome. Between them, this will get 15 per cent of the vote. How they divide it up will make all the difference.


Day 11: Cherchez la femme

Having watched parliamentary debates for some years I have learned to interpret the body of language of representatives as they listen to the speeches of their leaders or their political adversaries: Straight shoulders, upper body slightly leaning forward, applauding with thick movements of their hands, combative interventions, a little shouting – those are the symptoms of an alert audience, on its toes, ready to topple the government – or fight in its support with all legal and rhetorical means available.

Today’s budget-debate (total value 246.3 billion Euros for 2003) in the Bundestag, which the Berliners prefer to call Reichstag, contained no surprises. Except that the body language of the conservative opposition parties and especially its candidate for Chancellor Edmund Stoiber, signalled their newly somber mood. Seeing Frau Angela Merkel, chairwoman of the CDU, applaud some remarks of Stoiber (who had outmanoeuvred her for the candidacy) was to be present at the evolution of one-hand clapping. The CDU suddenly smells defeat.

In one of the most astonishing turnarounds in German campaign history, the governing SPD is experiencing a remarkable comeback. Only three weeks ago, its administration was turning into an episode. As Stoiber was hammering away at its faults, the SPD and its leader Gerhard Schröder was getting used to its old role of parliamentary opposition, after a mere four years in power.

Then three things happened: The floods in East Germany, the threat of war against Iraq and, finally, the TV debates, which clearly shifted the mood in the country, not least amongst the undecided. Schröder managed to look good in Wellington boots, he opposed President Bush’s bellicose rhetoric and he turned on his TV-charisma against Stoiber. That seemed to do it.

According to today’s polls, the CDU has lost 3.5 per cent in the polls in a week – a landslide – and now stands at 36 per cent while the SPD has moved up to 38.5 per cent. The FDP, which was heading for coalition with the CDU, remains at 8.5 per cent and the Greens have moved up to 8 per cent. Some pundits are even predicting Gerhard Schröder’s return into the bombastic new chancellery in Berlin on the support more than 40 per cent of the votes.

Inside the CDU, which has always understood itself as a club to elect a chancellor rather than an organization wedded to a particular program, some of its mandarins are already re-positioning themselves: blaming Stoiber’s campaign strategy for its apparent failure – too smooth, not aggressive enough, etc – which is further reinforcing its loss of appeal to uncommitted voters.

Pollsters and pundits find it difficult to say why Stoiber’s popularity has declined so quickly. The leading explanation is that his hidden conservatism is showing through. Every now and then it showed its true face in the past, as when he invited Silvio Berlusconi to his party’s convention in 2001. Further back, Stoiber once pointed out that opening Germany’s borders to immigration might lead to what he called – in a phrase cribbed from either chicken-breeders or from German 20th century racism – the “Durchrassung” of society, that is the racial mixing of Germans with other “races”. This remark has haunted Stoiber ever since. Being adept at changing himself, he must have exiled the attitudes associated with such a word into the attic of his consciousness. At the same time, his party, the CSU as well as its bigger sister, the CDU, have succeeded in playing with related populist attitudes in the last four years, as when Schröder’s government liberalized immigration laws.

To a certain degree, that is, and they needed to be liberalized. At the present rate of growth the German population will be only 20 million at the end of the century, compared to its present 81 million. The complete breakdown of its social system, however, will occur around 2025 unless there are many more new citizens. Without Ausländer, Germany would simply disappear in its present form. An outcome which in fact does not scare its neighbors too much, even if they too, would suffer from the decline of Germany’s economic strength and political stability.

Stoiber’s conservatism also showed its face some years ago, when he argued that the Austrian government would indeed be well served if it included Jörg Haider’s FPÖ – the neo-fascist freedom party. When the European nations tried to isolate Austria, Stoiber attacked Schröder. Although he simultaneously distanced himself from Haider, the Austrian remembers spending happy days with Mr. Stoiber, when both organized party-meetings in the foothills of the Alps.

These are titbits from a past of a conservative politician, who tried his best to turn himself into everybody’s darling. Now, it seems, he may have failed in this. Perhaps his candidacy was a mistake to begin with. Stoiber became the conservative candidate for Chancellor by displacing Angela Merkel, who had dislodged Helmut Kohl from the leadership of the CDU, after Kohl’s electoral defeat in 1998. Meanwhile Gerhard Schröder said he feared an electoral contest with Frau Merkel much more, because, he claimed, he would not know how to attack a female politician. Why a man who has been married four times would have difficulties in manu a manu fights with Merkel only he can tell. A Margaret Thatcher she is not. So, when all this is over, it seems that her chance of becoming Germany’s first female chancellor will be higher than ever – but that is for 2006.


Day 14: The SPD’s achievements

The Election campaign is almost over. Our heroes’ voices are hoarse, their arguments have turned into invectives (“unscrupulous“, “shameless“, “imbecile“). The picture of the Republic has been painted as black on black by Edmund Stoiber. But Chancellors are not elected because of apocalyptic prophecies.

When Gerhard Schröder’s Ministers moved into their government offices in Bonn in 1998, they were met by mistrust and disappointment. The conservative CDU/CSU had taken ownership of the state after 1982 and had turned its officials – down to the typists – into political partisans. The right’s departure from power was interpreted as an unfair defeat, preceded by a coup d’etat against then Chancellor Helmut Kohl. But it was a democratic election. Nonetheless, compromising files disappeared or were shredded in situ.

The SPD needed twelve months to understand the mighty administrative apparatus of government and lead it towards a new direction. Even its own members of parliament had to learn their new roles. Many of them preferred to remain in opposition – and they did. The first break came for Schröder, when his eccentric-traditionalist Minister of Finance, Oskar Lafontaine, left like an unloved husband who steps out in the evening just to fetch a pack of cigarettes, not to return. His successor, Hans Eichel, a man with the demeanour of a sour teacher of Latin, Physics and Greek, became a political star.

His brief was simple: Reduce the overwhelming state debts over a period of eight years in order to reach a balanced budget somewhere in the second decade of the 21st century.

The political and economic state of Germany in 1998 was well described as a kind Reform-Jam (as in traffic-jam). Innovative ideas piled up by the dozen. Essays on how to save Germany from bankruptcy seemed to bore the Kohl government to tears and remained unread. Nothing happened.

The diagnosis was clear: Germany was, and remains, totally over-regulated (half of the post-war laws were passed Kohl’s last ten years). Industry is over-subsidised. Lobbies and trade-unions are over-represented in parliament. The state has grown fat. Tax laws are unjust and too complex. Fifty per cent of the gross-national-product passes through the state, with its five million officials and employees. Aversion to innovation and endless decision making at the communal and federal level are the consequence. No wonder, Germany has six times as many professional judges as the United Kingdom.

The worst problem now is mass unemployment. Seventeen per cent in East Germany, seven in West Germany. But something else is true, as well, as I’ve already noted in this diary. But it is worth repeating. Hundreds of thousands are not unemployed at all, but have jobs in Germany’s shadow economy while cashing in their unemployment checks. The black economy now accounts for up to twenty per cent of the gross-national-product, 340 billion Euros, which is untaxed.

The election campaign has somehow managed not to mention this reality of German economic life, which in no way differs from a great southern European state, which gave us the Ferrari and a way of life. And Berlusconi.

Which will be the future? This is a major question for European politics and policy and it is in play in Germany’s 2002 general election.

Election campaigns, one hopes, are but democratic conversations of society about its problems and their possible solutions. Yet the CDU posed no questions, let alone answers. It preferred to present the country as a sad product of social democratic irresponsibility. The SPD, for its part, felt misunderstood.

With some justification. Its reform of the social security system, introduced the co-financing of one’s own future pensions through state subsidized investment programs (the American model), it thereby broke with what had seemed an almost untouchable German tradition and would not have been possible with the SPD in opposition.

Income taxes were lowered by six per cent. Most companies received substantial tax breaks. But all that’s already forgotten.

Germany’s foreign policy in the Middle East, which in the past had been characterized by oscillating between Arabian and Israeli interests, was refocused by Joschka Fischer. In the light of Germany’s history he reintroduced the notion of our moral obligation – and reaffirmed Germany’s unwavering support for Israel.

Schröder’s Defence Minister Scharping also drew on the lessons of Nazism and the need for making human rights a priority to legitimise German’s first military mission since 1945 in Kosovo. It was a surprising paradigm shift on Germany’s defence strategy. Later Scharping drowned, politically speaking, in a ridiculous misjudgement of taste, when he made a fool of himself by arranging a photo session with his girl-friend in Mallorca. Any defence minister who romps around in a swimming-pool while his soldiers sweat it out on the Balkan, will become a burden to public life. He resigned later – if nearly too late.

Almost ten per cent of Germany’s population are foreigners or born with parents who are foreigners. Schröder’s government was the first to face reality and draw up a regulatory process which allows the nation to restructure the more or less unchecked flow of immigrants from around the world into a country once known as a “welfare-paradise”.

Looking back, therefore, Schröder’s government has achieved more than anyone actually realistically hoped for: even the introduction of the Euro. And while I write this I am looking at a coin that originated in Spain and enjoys a relief of Juan Carlos. It too serves as serious money (remember the Peseta?) and has turned into an unexpected success. Nobody here misses the Deutschmark.

Having been bombarded by a totally pessimistic view of Germany for more than four months, without any slogans that encouraged hope or the prospect of positive change, voters are suddenly turning away in droves from the CDU/CSU. Its final battle cry, alas, will further mobilize the left: Edmund Stoiber and his campaign managers intend to pull up their Wunderwaffe, which may indeed by exactly that. They are mobilising good old German xenophobia and fear of migration. Will this work? It takes election times to understand what conservatism could mean in the Federal Republic of Germany.


Day 16: Not in Wilder’s wildest…

The cat is out of the bag – at least for those who actually imagined it was in there. Cynics and realists (which you choose depends on your political background) always thought that the current Iraq crisis did not originate in last year’s New York massacre, but rather in strategic deliberations amongst the oil magnates currently in power in the United States.

And now it is official. “When it’s over, who get’s the oil?”, announces a headline early this week in the Washington Post, reporting on the planned ousting of Saddam Hussein: It “could open a bonanza for American oil companies long banished from Iraq, scuttling oil deals between Baghdad and Russia, France and other countries and reshuffling world petroleum markets, according to industry officials and Iraqi opposition leaders”.

Let us assume that those opposition leaders in their various hotel-suites in London, Paris and Washington have already negotiated their contracts with the friends of Halliburton Inc., currently residing in the Old Executive Building next to the White House, and their partners from Chevron, Exxon, and Texaco, together with other families we had heard nothing about until recently, such as the Bin Ladens, business partners of the larger Bush family until the summer of 2001.

Clearly the writer has a fondness for good old conspiracy theories? Not really. There is no conspiracy regarding the future of Iraq. It is all out in the open. Or, to quote the Washington Post: “ ‘It is pretty straightforward,’ said James Woolsey, a former CIA director who has been one of the leading advocates of forcing Saddam from power. ‘France and Russia have oil companies and interests in Iraq. They should be told that if they are of assistance in moving Iraq towards decent government, we’ll do the best we can to ensure that the new government and American companies work closely with them.’ But he adds: ‘If they throw in their lot with Saddam, it will be different to the point of impossible to persuade the new Iraqi government to work with them.’ ”

This is not the moment to recall to mind the immense efficiency of the CIA in analysing the revolutionary situation in Cuba in 1960, or the missile gap between the USSR and the USA in 1961, or its deft handling of numerous coup d’états south of the border, culminating in the ‘removal’ of Allende. Let us not talk about its empirically exact prognostications of the Soviet Union’s demise, nor its comprehensive survey of Bin Laden’s terrorist network two years ago. All that is understood. Let us now praise their oil-expertise. Perhaps this is the only business they have always been in?

It is time to take another look at a famous scene in Billy Wilder’s film Some like it hot. Who will ever forget Marilyn Monroe skipping and hopping across the beach and bumping into Tony Curtis, the hapless saxophone player, who is pretending to be a millionaire. When asked by the naive goddess who he is, he charmingly lifts a shell from the sand and holds it up. “Shell!”, Marilyn exclaims and Dollar signs twinkle in her eyes.

What do you know? Can’t we already see the next General Schwarzkopf re-enacting this scene at a swimming pool in Baghdad? And what, you may ask, has this got to do with the German election? More than Billy Wilder might have dreamed possible. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s and Joska Fischer’s refusal to give unconditional support to American war-plans against Iraq has turned into the major and final bone of contention between the government and the opposition CDU’s candidate Edmund Stoiber (supported by his backing chorus in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Axel Springer press of Bild and Welt with a combined daily circulation of nearly 4.5 million).

Iraq’s benighted dictator has finally caved in and offered to open his borders to the formerly exiled UN- weapon inspectors. The CDU gives all the credit to the United States war scenario – while simultaneously deploring it. Or at least refusing, just like Schröder, active German military participation. Schizophrenia plays its part in politics. Joschka Fischer, on the other hand, feeling that the war-issue might not carry him through the final polling day on Sunday, tries to keep the issue alive in his own way. His voice has by now sunk to the hoarse whisper of a football coach running up and down the sidelines in the final game of a national championship (at least four teams and five balls on the field). The United States, Fischer growls, wants more than inspection – it wants a change of regime.

True. But Washington’s grand strategy, to democratise the Middle East, reeks of a naiveté so stunning that it is hard to take seriously, even for those who watched the democratisation of a Grenada, El Salvador or Panama, not to mention Florida.

In short, as the election campaign winds down, the next government, whether it is Schröder’s or Stoiber’s, faces the task of realigning its foreign policy with the United States and its faithful ally, the Labour government in London. In the meantime the inspectors will definitely find Saddam’s nuclear bomb and Bin Laden...

The election in Sweden brought back the Social Democrat Goeran Persson, to his own surprise (the polls had predicted he would be out of power). This has no real effect on the voter’s mood in Germany. Basically, Sweden, the richest nation in Europe – with the exception of Switzerland – with a living standard approaching that of the Alpine republic, has been social-democratic for six decades (with a short conservative interlude). It once served as a model to the rest of Europe. About ten to fifteen years ago, Sweden started to cut its hilariously high taxes (top earners like Ingmar Bergmann sometimes ended up with 102 per cent tax on their income) and its social benefits, to an affordable scale. Again leading the way, but less dramatically.

More important, perhaps is the role of the polls themselves. When this election is over, Germany will debate the role and functions of opinion surveys. One public opinion research institute, Allensbach, had Stoiber and the CDU/CSU far ahead until a week ago. Then it had to adapt its outrageously out-of-line predictions of a Stoiber victory and back the trend indicated by four other independent polls.

Today, though, it has changed its tune again and has Stoiber ahead by a small percentage. Polling in Germany is, like any other market research, big business. When another institute, Forsa, predicted a decline of Stoiber’s popularity a few months ago, a spokesman seemed to imply that Forsa might not be able count on governmental business, once Stoiber was in power.

The same may hold true the other way around for Allensbach.

A Cassandra, carved to one’s own purposes? A Tereisias, blind in one eye only, looking out for one’s political leanings? Might the history of classical Greece have taken a totally different course if its voices of prediction needed corporate branding?

I am going to Sweden tomorrow and will be back on Friday. And then two more days to go here, unless the United States sends in the Marines. Just kidding...


Day 21: Victory! Happy days are over

Up until midnight in Berlin, it was the Battle of the Exit-pollsters. By 3:45am, this Monday morning, when the official result was announced, the CDU/CSU and its candidate Edmund Stoiber had performed victory-dances in every available TV station. Chancellor Schröder and his team made reluctant appearances, not sure what the voters had decided.

The complicated voting system didn’t help. During the count once polls closed at 6 pm on what was a rainy Sunday (which partly accounted for, by German standards, low voter turn-out of only 79.1 per cent, three points down on 1998), the two major TV-stations were competing in false prophecy. Around midnight, the numbers revealed a change of fortune. The SPD, which lost 2.4 per cent, together with the Greens under Joschka Fischer, who gained 2 per cent, nevertheless ended up with a majority of 11 seats over the combined forces of the conservatives and the liberals in the new Bundestag (with two seats occupied by the post-communist PDS). In short, the conservatives lost the election. Although they gained 3.4 per cent of the vote, it was not enough.

So Joschka Fischer, already the most popular politician in the land, will continue his quiet beauty contest with Gerhard Schröder. It was a narrow victory for the government, guaranteed by the surprising strength of the Greens and the shift of votes from the PDS towards the SPD in East Germany.

The big losers are the liberals, the FDP, a party with no purpose except to lower taxes for the middle class and to further its own share in power. Instead of the 18 per cent they had hoped for, they ended up with 7.4 per cent – still 1.2 per cent more than in 1998. One of their luminaries, Juergen Moellemann, last week played a slightly anti-semitic card which seemed to work well enough in his home-territory, the Ruhr-Valley, where the FDP gained 9 per cent – yet destroyed his political career, losing all respectability for his party in the rest of the nation. In four years, the FDP look set to end up like the Communists, in the dustbin of history.

One reason it was so narrow was that the SPD lost about 2 per cent of its potential support due to a remark by its minister of justice, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, overheard by a journalist in Tübingen, home of one of the few respected universities left in this country (and home of her ancestors, who played a significant role in the history of German enlightenment).

George W. Bush, she was quoted as saying, would be in jail for insider-trading if it were not for the ‘lousy legal system’ in America. Well, he certainly would not be in jail in Germany – where such practices are the rule, under far less legal restriction even than in America. Furthermore, she is also reputed to have said in front of some trade unionists, that Bush’s plans to invade Iraq served to distract his people from domestic problems, just – one can’t believe the stupidity of the comparison – as Hitler did when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939.

It was more than a slip of the tongue and a political and historical imbecility – it was a mistake which cost her her political career. The otherwise feisty and competent lady will be excluded from Schröder’s next cabinet. In fact, the lady is for burning on the altar of German-American relations, which have reached a low point, exemplified by Mr. Rumsfeld, who, when asked whether he will meet the new German defense minister Peter Struck, replied that he had no intention of ‘talking to this person’. Meanwhile, ‘this person’ is in charge of 10,000 German soldiers under joint German and American command in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, fighting a ‘war against global terrorism’ and as a matter of fact, dying in it.

After Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, Schröder is the third Social Democrat to have won re-election in post-war Germany. In his second term Willy Brandt succumbed to serious depressions, the scandal of an East German spy in his personal entourage, and, finally to a mild inflation rate. His heritage was the “Ostpolitik”, which paved the way for reunification.

Helmut Schmidt, who is currently recovering from a serious bypass operation, ran the country on a growing state deficit to overcome the crisis of an OPEC- induced economic meltdown of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) machine. Having successfully combated the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhoffs, he ran into trouble with the United States on strategic military issues. The Pentagon had secretly placed neutron bombs – nuclear weapons that kill people but leave real estate intact – in Germany, making it quite clear where the Americans intended to fight it out with the Russians in the eventuality of war. Schmidt, however, believed in the surreal beauty of nuclear deterrence. He insisted that Russia’s insane build up of medium range missiles should be countered by the basing of Pershing II missiles in Germany – weapons which could take out the personal Dacha of the Secretary General of the KPDSU, but leave his garage intact. This, however, was too much for his own party, the Social Democrats. He lost their support, and his coalition partner, the FDP, switched sides, (as is its wont). Helmut Kohl came in for sixteen years.

Schröder, then an opponent of Helmut Schmidt in parliament, learned the lesson: the Social Democrats are, at heart, pacifistically inclined, and while he had taxed their patience with the deployment of Bundeswehr soldiers in Kosovo and Afghanistan, he knew that he could go no further.

He won the election, undoubtedly, by opposing the Pentagon’s pre-emptive war plans. He will now have to repair some of the rhetorical damage done to German – American relations, which are otherwise healthy and firmly grounded in extensive business interests.

Whether the visionary viziers in the White House will accept a humble phone call from Berlin is not the question – Schröder is many things: humble he is not. Perhaps a little help from his English friends will patch things up. Otherwise, will Schröder have to wait for two years, until George W. Bush puts his policy to the test in another presidential election? As the recession marches on, perhaps waging war may be the last thing on America’s mind. In Germany, a major refit of the country will be on the agenda.

Fischer may now concentrates on Europe. It will be up to Schröder to persuade the whole country to face reality: Happy days are over, once and for all.


Day 23: Here is the fork – take it

As Yogi Berra, living font of American baseball-wisdom (“ninety five per cent of the game is half-mental”), used to say: “It ain’t over, until it’s over”.

In France, de Gaulle once turned hostility towards the United States to electoral advantage. Perhaps for the first time since 1945, a major democracy sees a party of the center-left criticize America and win at the polls. Some say that a cultural shift could be under way that may have come as just as much a surprise to the victorious Schröder as it seems it did to the White House. But anti-Americanism it is not. Rather it is a result of deep-seated, self-inflicted German trauma: fear of war. Nothing new and not entirely unwelcome to our neighbors, one should think.

It took longer than ever before in the age of televised German election-results to learn the exact outcome of the political decision of the people. Strangely enough, it hinged on a natural disaster in East Germany, an endless flooding of cities, and then a threat of war in the Middle East – events clearly beyond the control of campaign-managers. Gerhard Schröder’s deft handling of both unforeseeable opportunities, plus a TV-debate which went in his favor, lifted his party – the SPD – by three points from a predicted 35 per cent four weeks ago to an actual 38.5 per cent – on par with the conservative CDU/CSU, which also collected 38.5 per cent.

Overall, the SPD collected about 8,000 more votes than Stoiber’s troops. This will give it an additional five seats in parliament. This makes all the difference – along with the surprising gains of the Greens, who increased their share of the vote by 1.9 per cent to 8.6 per cent, making them the third-largest party in the Bundestag. Together with two votes of the post-communist PDS, Schröder could count on a majority of eleven seats in a case of emergency, that is a vote of confidence

Without their success, Schröder would have lost to a coalition formed by the CDU/CSU and the liberal FDP. On the other hand, the Green’s leader, Joska Fischer, is well aware that most of these “new votes” for the Greens were strategically cast by sophisticated social democrats, who used the German electoral system with its two votes per voter, to give their second nod to the otherwise feeble Greens, strengthening the Fischer/Schröder coalition.

Until late Sunday evening, Stoiber and his advisers did not believe the turn-around and declared themselves winners. Strangely enough, they still do, while also admitting that Schröder won. It is true that Edmund Stoiber moved the CDU/CSU up onto the same level as the SPD – yet it is still their second worst result in twenty years. And what is more he lost East Germany and the protestant north of the country, while collecting an astounding sixty per cent of votes in Bavaria, his home state. Reminding the Germans of their Bismarckian origin in 1871, when the Kaiser’s “iron chancellor” was only able to persuade the Bavarian King Ludwig II (he of Neuschwanstein castle and unwavering patron saint of Richard Wagner) with a huge personal bribe to join the German Reich. In short, regional pride in the old southern and corruptible kingdom has reached a new height and serves to sooth the wounds of Stoiber, the loser/winner, who will return to his post of Bavarian governor in Munich.

Back in Berlin, Angela Merkel, head of the CDU, quickly ousted her colleague Friedrich Merz from his post as parliamentary minority leader. She now stands poised to run against Schröder in 2006. Stoiber, on the other hand, has not completely given up. He has already announced that he will try to mount another try if Schröder’s government stumbles within the next legislative period of four years.

It will not be easy for Schröder – with a second chamber, the Bundesrat, dominated by the representatives of the sixteen German Laender, or regional states, who have stifled many of the government’s reform initiatives in the last four years. The English idea of a “loyal opposition” is a fairly foreign concept here. The preferred term is “constructive opposition”, meaning – combative or unforthcoming and agonizingly indecisive.

Juergen Moellemann is another fallout, worth a last note. He has been ousted of from the board of the FDP, the Liberals, who are the true losers of the election. They had hoped to gain at least 18 per cent but ended up with 7.4 – possibly because of a populist and “slightly” anti-semitic flyer which Moellemann handed out during the final few days of polling.

As predicted, Schröder’s justice minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin had to go – after her weird remarks about Bush, Hitler and the “lousy legal system” of the United States. Before Schröder could fire her, she resigned. To no avail: The United States remain officially miffed, and while Putin, Chirac and Blair have congratulated Schröder on his re-election, Bush hasn’t. Obviously, he feels offended. Yet he need not be: Powell is already on the phone with Fischer, and Rumsfeld was not able to avoid bumping into the German defense minister Peter Struck, whose name evaded him recently – whereupon Herr Struck called Donald R. “Ronald” Rumsfeld. Kindergarten, with nuclear arms. Yet Rumsfeld couldn’t resist rubbing it in, once more. Talking to the German press, he said that once in a hole, one should stop digging. Which hole? The proverb does not apply to foxholes in wartime.

The new government is, like the whole nation, at a fork in the road. And, as the above mentioned Yogi Berra advised, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

The new government of Germany can decide to take a Thatcherite direction – a proposition seriously discussed amongst the more conservative supporters of the SPD. Or it can opt for the Swedish folkheim – an ideology of mutually shared costs in the social system and cuts in wealth-distribution. But this option seems only to be open to smaller, less complex societies – and certainly those without the burden of a highly subsidized heritage of a genuine socialist economy in East Germany; that is, of the ruins of productivity and lack of enthusiasm and technological or entrepreneurial know how. West-Germany’s productivity is, infact, its old-self almost.

Suggestions about how to cure Germany’s cumbersome labor-market abound, along with thousands of rustling pages on how to modernize the state. Yet most people, consensus-driven as they are, will not budge, when it comes to sacrificing their comparatively high personal income for the sake of the unemployed in the East, or the poor. In short, Germany is a modern state, which survives on the accumulated wealth and spending habits of the past, plus an albatross around its neck, called reunification.

To continue, it needs to work out how to reverse its social policy, its tax policy, its policy on state expenditures – while maintaining a level of security for the ordinary citizen. Such a squaring of the circle is only possible, it seems, during a period of economic growth, if then. If such a turn also depends upon tapping the intellectual and scientific reservoir of the country’s brains, then, alas, Germany’s schools and universities are in a terrible state and have slipped to being almost at the bottom of Europe’s league of excellence.

Could it be that such a grave situation will provide new legitimacy for political leaders to bring about change? They will need more than their fair share of Max Weber’s “charisma”. Clearly, Stoiber lacked it and Schröder has it. In the next four years he’s got a great opportunity to put it to use.

Will he? It is fair to say that Stoiber was rejected as the electorate took a closer look at him. By rejecting him, they prevented the creation of a right-wing alliance over Europe overseen by Stoiber and his friends, Chirac and Berlusconi. But the German voters only came to this decision after having originally decided, before the flood, against granting the government a further extension of four more years. If Schröder and his colleagues interpret the outcome as a vote of support for good old German social democracy they will be making a mistake and Angela Merkel can start smiling.

The SDP/Green coalition and its policies were almost rejected. They should never have allowed the CDU to come close to challenging them, mired as they were in the scandals of the Kohl era. The fact that they could only draw equal in Sunday’s election is more an indictment than an endorsement of the last four years. Given the alternative on offer, Schröder and Fischer, have been granted a second chance on the strength of their personalities in TV-land. A chance, that is, to do it differently. Whether they will or not is another matter – beyond the scope of an election Diary.

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