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Germany’s election sleepwalk

Michael Naumann
4 August 2005

If it were not for the occasional TV talk show, one would not know that Germany is in the middle of an election campaign in advance of the expected 18 September vote. There are two reasons for this political quiescence. The first is constitutional. Although the president, Horst Köhler, has dissolved parliament, the Bundesgerichtshof (federal supreme court) in Karlsruhe still has to prove the constitutional validity of his decision. If it disagrees, Germany would wake up in the middle of a major institutional crisis, and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder would then be obliged to do as he promised: continue governing as best he could.

The second is seasonal. Most Germans are enjoying themselves in the annual Autobahn traffic jams, getting to know Europe the hard way amidst endless car-columns of north- and east-European sun-seekers. The Dutch, the Swedes, and more recently the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Estonians and Latvians, all seem to be yearning for the Mediterranean, and their peaceful vacational crusades to the south take them across Germany in the summer.

Among Michael Naumann’s other writings on openDemocracy:

“Germany isn’t working” (May 2003)

“Gerhard Schröder’s last stand” (May 2005)

“Germany’s unfinished business” (June 2005)

German politicians have a hard time these days approaching their constituents in marketplaces or anywhere else. Voters simply do not want to talk to them. There is a populist groundswell in the country, which simply says: we are sick of you! There are no rational reasons for the discontent, except the plain truth that – despite endless reform talks and serious changes in the social system – unemployment is stubbornly unchanging and the economy seems stalled.

Forward to the past

One political event has made waves: a new Linkspartei (party of the left) has constituted itself via a merger of the successor-party to the former communist party of East Germany (Party of Democratic Socialism, PDS) and a far-left group of in West Germany led by Schröder’s short-lived finance minister and leftist gadfly Oskar Lafontaine. The new party was originally called the Electoral Alternative for Jobs and Social Justice (WASG) but has now simplified its title. It is promised, according to latest polls, the support of 30% of East German voters.

The East Germans have been known for their swing votes since reunification in 1990; this time around, they seem to prefer to swing backwards in history. This, however, opens new possibilities for Schröder’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). If the trend continues at the present rate, the Christian Democratic Party (CDU) and its Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partner will be unable to get a majority in parliament.

The SPD and the Greens, on the other hand, will refuse any coalition with the Linkspartei for reasons of political hygiene. And that leads almost automatically to a grand coalition with the SPD as the minor partner. The CDU leader Angela Merkel would be chancellor, Gerhard Schröder would leave the political scene – and a whole new game would start.

Forty years ago, in 1966, a grand coalition between the two major parties, the CDU and SPD, managed to achieve a number of necessary political changes (among them attaining the right to declare a state of emergency, which was still resting with the allied forces of the post-war years). It put Willy Brandt, later Nobel peace laureate, into the position of foreign minister.

openDemocracy recommends two recent books about modern Germany:

Steve Crawshaw, Easier Fatherland: Germany in the 21st Century (Continuum, 2005)

Anna Funder, Stasiland (Granta, 2004)

In fact, a grand coalition seems to be the last chance for the Social Democrats before they disappear into a longer historical hiatus. On 31 July, however, Gerhard Schröder carried off one of his celebrated moments of blue-eyed auratic projections of sympathy and charisma on a nationally televised talk show. A public TV debate with Angela Merkel in the style of presidential debates in the United States is also in the making. The conservative candidate would prefer to have just one encounter, understandably so; the lady is not made for the klieg-lights, unlike Schröder.

These are strange times in Germany. The loss of interest in politics by the general public is almost palpable. So, what are people interested in? Well, on 1 August, Queen Mary II, certainly one of the ugliest monster ships in the history of naval architecture, visited Hamburg. Traffic in the city ground to a halt. No less than half a million spectators came to see the thing.

What drew them to the aesthetically appalling sight is a mystery. Maybe people just want to be brought together. And if the politicians cannot do it, Queen Mary II certainly could. In the middle of the night it left Hamburg and there was nobody there to wave it goodbye with that great Brechtian song about the ship with eight sails. It disappeared into the fog of the north Atlantic.

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