A Small Time In Germany

With only nine days left until it’s held, Stephanie Surface looks at German politics in the run-up to the German Federal Election

Because of tensions in the Middle East, the coming German Federal Election currently seems to be in the background as regards to international media interest. But the election outcome will not only determine the future direction Germany might take, but also strongly influence the future of the whole European Union and the Euro.

The recent political debates on German television have seemed to range from extreme dullness to chaotic bickering, so that the German voter was either put to sleep or couldn’t make any sense of the arguments.

Yet in the first TV debate between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Peer Steinbrück, the candidate for the centre-left SPD, and her main political opponent, they mostly seemed to avoid any discussion about the Euro crisis and mentioned the subject only briefly. Although Steinbrück criticised Merkel’s Euro politics, he also had to admit that the SPD supported her “rescue missions” every time in Parliament.

As soon as the debate focused on social issues, both candidates tried to surpass each other on how to achieve ‘social justice’ with more effective measures. Because Merkel basically took over some of the SPD’s policies for rent control, minimum wage and higher pensions for mothers, Steinbrück could only point to an increasing gap between rich and poor, therefore planning higher income taxes for the wealthy and a wealth tax.

The only time Steinbrück seemed to shock was when a moderator asked him about civil servants’ relatively high pensions compared to those of ordinary Germans. He admitted that civil servants’ pensions should be adjusted to be much more similar to ordinary pensions. The “conservative” Chancellor played this down by claiming – wrongly, and to great derision from the German Twitter community – that civil servants had to pay full tax on their pensions, unlike the average pensioner.

Most Germans were so bored by the politicians’ near-interchangeable points of view and the dullness of the debate that Merkel’s necklace ( patriotic beads of black, red and gold) acquired its own twitter account and became more interesting than its wearer.

After the debate opinions were split who was the winner, but Steinbrück probably profited slightly in opinion polls, as expectations of his ability to stand up to Merkel had seemed to be  low from the beginning. Before the debate Merkel’s personal ratings to become German Chancellor were 63% and after the debate 59%: Steinbrück increased his slightly from 32% to 39%.

A few days later, the other major parties – the FDP, Die Grüne and Die Linke – also had a chance to debate each other on TV. But the moderators had such a hard time to control the loud bickering and interruptions by the politicians that viewers had a hard time trying to follow their arguments.

The most interesting political discussion took place in a political TV forum about the Euro crisis a week later. The participants were politicians from SPD and CSU, the Vice-President of the EU Commission, the chief analyst from the state-owned Bremer Landesbank, and the candidate for the EU- and euro-sceptic AfD, Bernd Lucke.

This seemed to be the perfect platform for Lucke: within the first minutes he destroyed the assertion by the EU Commissioner that the Greek and Portuguese economies were slowly recovering. The rattled Commissioner then accused the AfD of being “unpatriotic” in criticising Angela Merkel, and telling the audience that “the German Chancellor was the envy of the world…”

Although Lucke found himself in an increasingly hostile environment, he calmly battled with clear facts and numbers against the participants. At the end the Bavarian Finance Minister from the CSU, who last year wanted Greece to leave the Eurozone, wanted to give Greece “one more chance”. Lucke asked him with a smile how many “one more chances” and rescue packages should be granted to Greece and other indebted nations in the future, to which nobody in the panel seemed to have an answer.

So far Peer Steinbrück of the SPD has an uphill battle, as 76% of Germans report being either satisfied or very satisfied with their personal situation. Steinbrück wants to build a left of centre coalition with the Green Party, but recent opinion polls gave the SPD around 25% and the Green Party just 10%, which wouldn’t be enough for a majority in parliament.

Steinbrück strictly excludes a coalition with the extreme left Die Linke, however, because they have ex-communists in their ranks who wouldn’t be reliable coalition partners. Neither does he fancy another Grand Coalition of SPD and CDU/CSU where he would play second fiddle to Merkel again. But Die Linke has recently risen in opinion polls as many disappointed socialist euro-sceptic voters seemed to have defected to the more left-wing party.

Merkel’s right of centre coalition has so far a paper-thin majority in the opinion polls, with the CDU/CSU currently at 40% and the FDP at 5%. But she knows that opinion polls can be extremely unreliable and usually turn out to be too optimistic for the CDU. In the last election she only got about 34%, as many voters seemed to have switched to the FDP in the election booth.

There is also the question what would happen if two other small parties are able to jump the 5% hurdle into parliament: the afore-mentioned euro-sceptic AfD, which wants a decentralised Europe and a more Swiss styled direct democracy, and the Piraten Partei, who are social liberals and advocates of political transparency, but also demand an unconditional basic income. Both parties so far have only between 3-4% in opinion polls.

The AfD hopes that many Germans don’t admit to pollsters that they want to vote for a euro-sceptic party, and that non-voting Germans might turn up on Election Day to show their frustration with the established parties. German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas recently said that the avoidance of serious discussions about the future of the Eurozone was a “collective failure of the entire established class” in Germany.

The election result is therefore highly uncertain and might cause major upsets in the German political landscape, as many different coalitions might be possible after the election. It will hopefully rough up the bland policies of the established parties.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter:  @suranie


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here