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Michael Naumann reports on Germany's momentous 18 September election

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Germany’s blind date

Germany’s supreme court in Karlsruhe has heard an appeal by two members of parliament from the ruling coalition - Jelena Hoffmann of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Werner Schulz of the Greens – against the federal president, Horst Köhler’s, decision to allow the dissolution of parliament after Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had finagled the Bundestag into a vote of no confidence in his government on 1 July 2005.

The two parliamentarians claim that in reality Schröder does or did have an unwavering majority on his side, and that the president must have known this. It follows that Horst Köhler should not have sent parliament home simply because the chancellor had asked him to.

If these sound like the uninteresting and obscure details of an ordinary divorce procedure, it should be added that what is being separated – or not – is a marriage between the chancellor and his 304 spouses: the “red” and “green” members of the Bundestag. And the courtroom drama has been getting complicated: it soon became clear that the second chamber of the constitutional court is split on the issue. If it finds (after the two weeks it has requested to make up its mind) that Horst Köhler did not base his decision on Germany’s constitution, the president would have to step down in an act of political remorse – and a new president would have to be elected in the coming months.

In that case, says Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, he and Schröder would simply ask the driver of their campaign bus to get off the Autobahn and head straight back to Berlin: “we would simply go on governing”. It would be one of the most bizarre interludes in Germany’s democratic history since 1949.

The east is red

Other bizarre things are happening. Angela Merkel, the CDU candidate for chancellor, had chosen to spend a few days at the Bayreuth festival, instead of campaigning. Enchanting evenings with Richard Wagner? Well, the grand viziers of her party have also decided to duck completely. They are not supporting her.

The general trend is suddenly running against the CDU and its Christian Social Union (CSU) allies. Overnight the mood in the country seems to have changed: the majority of the voters prefer Gerhard Schröder again in a straight fight with Angela Merkel, and the latest (15 August) poll from FG Wahlen/ZDF measures conservative support at 42%, with 29% for the SPD, 9% for the Linkspartei (left party), 9% for the Greens, and 8% for the Free Democratic Party (FDP). 

Perhaps Merkel made a mistake when she announced that she is going to raise value-added tax from 16-18%. It sounded honest but it may also have been politically stupid. No one has ever won an election on the promise of raising taxes.

And then, an even more bizarre twist raised the temperature of the public debate. An east-German nurse had given birth to nine babies over several decades – and managed to murder them all, burying them in garden pots and in an old aquarium. These pots-turned-coffins she dragged around as she moved from place to place in East Germany - in order, as she later said, to stay close to them. No similar case had been recorded in Germany’s criminal history.

It took only a few days for a member of the conservative CDU to utter a populist opinion on the sociological background of this gruesome behavior: the interior minister of the state of Brandenburg, Jörg Schönbohm, declared that “proletarianisation” under communism in East Germany had led to a loss of moral values and social coherence.

While it might be asked how the neighbours of the killer-mom were able to overlook nine pregnancies (not to mention the fathers), it would be even more interesting to learn how these murders could possibly be traced to a general normative failure induced by yesterday’s communist system. All east Germans were offended. And so, overnight, the CDU lost at least 3% of its support in east Germany.

The Linkspartei  - formed by the successor to the former ruling communist party of the German Democratic Republic and co-headed by Schröder’s nemesis Oskar Lafontaine and Gregor Gysi, a rhetorically gifted lawyer from east Germany - has harvested the anger and dissent of people in the eastern part of the country. 

A new grand coalition?

Because of this new development, the possibilities of a grand coalition between the SPD and the CDU are growing. Gerhard Schröder, who in the last months of his regular job as chancellor seemed exhausted, now appears like a man energised by the daily adrenalin flow of campaigning. His talk-show technique has reached a professional level reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s Las Vegas appearances. As he enters the living-rooms of his German viewers, he exudes confidence, humour and a feeling that perhaps his policies may have failed – but as a politician he is not to be blamed.

In short, unlike the final years of Helmut Kohl, where people simply got tired watching their monstrous chancellor wallowing in his undeniable historical successes of reunification, a new political trend seems to say: wait a minute, this guy has not finished his job yet.

Still, the majority of the voters got tired of the red-green coalition simply because they suffered the consequences of unemployment, rising social costs and economic uncertainties due to globalisation. Just like Bill Clinton, Schröder seems to be telling them now: “I can feel your pain.” In contrast, Angela Merkel offers less compassion and more pain; that is, higher taxes and even deeper cuts in the social welfare system.

If the German voters opt for the harsher medicine of the conservatives, this could be interpreted as a colossal and surprising insight into some necessities of change. That insight, of course, drove Schröder and his cabinet towards their reform-measures, which hurt and remain unpopular. So it all boils down to a simple question: why exchange the known source of unhappiness for an unknown one?
That of course may also be on the mind of the constitutional court. And if, in fact, they decide that Schröder should stay his course and say that parliament cannot be dissolved, he would most possibly go down in history as the first chancellor who tried to say “goodbye to all that” without even getting out of his office door.

August 15, 2005 | Permalink


Please, oh please let Schröder pull off another victory. There's nothing I'd like to see more than the European ship finally get sunk once and for all by its own utterly ineffective socialist champions.

Posted by: Foul Harold | Aug 16, 2005 8:38:30 PM

What a nice interpretation of the German political landscape, to say that the left party "has harvested the anger and dissent of people in the eastern part of the country" - ain't that a little bit cheap? Perhaps people were legitimately dissatisfied with certain aspects of German politics. Perhaps people were expecting alternatives and didn't get them.
Anyway, I can't judge the overall German political attitudes, but I'm not convinced it's just this east/west split Naumann points out.

Posted by: Cassie | Aug 17, 2005 9:04:28 AM

Whatever decision the court in Karlsruhe may take it will not make a big difference. The policies of the current coalition, a new SPD led government or a conservative led one would be very much the same. Only a government in which the "Democratic Left - PDS" has a strong say would make a difference - for Germany and for Europe provided that they manage integrating some bright ideas and people from the alter-globalizatiom movement and not reposing solely on political concepts of the past.
Germany, Europe and the World urgently are in need of a different political and economic approach addressing the ever more pressing problems like poverty, social injustice, abusive economic exploitation, and environmental degradation !

Posted by: Heinz | Aug 17, 2005 9:38:22 AM

Michael Naumann used to be a New York publisher, as was I; though of a far smaller firm. His assessment is fair, his American is by and large admirable, except that his memories of German gym classes appear to confuse the "medicine ball" [which heavy object you toss AT each other] with the American punching BAG which passive object a boxer hits to let out his frustrations.

Posted by: michael roloff | Sep 2, 2005 5:05:28 PM

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