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Michael Naumann reports on Germany's momentous 18 September election

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Germany's black comedy

No, the Germans are not very interested in this election campaign. The alienation of citizens from politics goes on: a phenomenon with many faces.

On 28 August, Angela Merkel - candidate of the conservative opposition CDU - presented herself at a convention in Dortmund (once a stronghold of the governing SPD) to a carefully selected band of admirers, party delegates and brigades of young cheerleaders. It was reminiscent of the staged, sycophantic events of East Germany’s political past. The main difference - instead of proletarian slogans there was a constant waving of posters with the simple message "Angie".

Yes, the Rolling Stones’s Angie - performed during the Merkel roadshow by a measly cover-band. True, Angela Merkel lacks, through no fault of her own, thirty years’ life-experience of western pop music. Little does she know that the Rolling Stones were anathema to the conservative parents of the kids who are now waving "Angie" posters in her support; in the 1970s mom and dad sided (at the utmost) with those sweet Beatles - who never showed any sympathy for the devil, let alone for revolution.

On the other hand, the marketing of Merkel’s CDU with second-hand rock’n’roll and squeaky-clean cheerleaders is a good indication of cultural flux in Germany. Angela Merkel, the future chancellor, is a divorced Protestant, a woman, childless; her own activists recently denounced the leader of her likely partner in a governing coalition, the Free Democrats’ (FDP) Guido Westerwelle, as a bachelor from Bonn (he came out as a homosexual a year ago).

Thus, Germany might be conservative at heart, but that does not imply the moral rigidity personified by that other German, the new pope. It is hard to imagine that the Catholic church, which not so long ago used to support the CDU wholeheartedly - Sunday blessings included - will return to its old partisan habits with these new leaders.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s political presentation of her plans for Germany remains as opaque as ever - with two exceptions. First, she wants to raise value-added tax (Vat) by 2%, which would put Germany on the median level in Europe. The FDP opposes this as strongly as does Gerhard Schroder’s SPD. Indeed, considering that the true weakness of Germany’s present economy is caused by its citizens’ continuing reluctance to open their wallets and consume, the inevitable price rises following a Vat increase would not help.

Germany’s saving rates have reached record levels. For Schroder and his party, Merkel’s dubious plan (which they call plan Merkel-taxes) comes just in time to add spice to their own lukewarm campaigning.

Then came Merkel’s second joke-proposition: she introduced the former supreme-court judge, Paul Kirchhof, as her future finance minister. He is an eccentric and avid fan of flat taxes who advocates a top income tax rate of 25% for everybody. The last prominent proponent of this rather loony idea in a country used to progressive income taxes for an entire century was Ronald Reagan. But that was in America; and he just talked about it.

The idea which has caught on in several of the smaller east-central European states in the past two years emanates from the utopian writings of Massachusetts author Edward Bellamy in the 1880s. Its implementation in modern Germany would guarantee a state deficit of at least 40 billion Euro, and bring state operations to a complete standstill within a few months.

The absurdity of Paul Kirchhof’s proposals has not been lost on the grandees of Angela Merkel’s party and while the candidate strongly supports her own man, her party peers are publicly, though subtly, dismantling him. 

None of this seems to be influencing the voters. Recent polls suggest that, whatever happens on the public stage of party conventions or TV talk shows, the majority of voters polled want a new government. Do they want a new Germany as well? Angela Merkel keeps on quoting the federal republic’s heroes of the past, Ludwig Erhard and Konrad Adenauer, as if she had sat on their laps half a century ago. The implication is that Germany should rekindle the spirit of 1949, when it started anew after its colossal moral, economic and historical defeat and downfall. Yet even when drawing this absurd comparison in Dortmund, she was interrupted by hysterical chants of "Angie, Angie!" (which, after all, is pretty much an old song as well - 1973).

No, nobody in this country really wants to return to those years of a miserable nation run by a conservative political and economic elite. Try as she might, "Angie" will never become a "Maggie" (Thatcher) for Germany lacks radical trade unions to serve as a punchball on the route to a nation defined by flat taxes and the abolition of labour laws. These laws, in any case, were extremely helpful in moving the country out of the doldrums of the post-war years.

Moreover, some of the changes in Germany’s social-welfare system introduced by Schroder’s government in the last two years have been moderated after they provoked trade union wrath. It is hard to imagine that the unions will also allow the dismantling of their basic negotiation rights. Radical the German trade unions are not (there is no Arthur Scargill here), but they are more and better organised than any trade union movement in the world. To change their ways, Angela Merkel will first have to change her own. Change, of course, is the main theme of her campaign. Though change, by definition, has never been the forte of conservatives.

Next weekend, Schroder and Merkel will meet in a TV debate lasting ninety minutes - the length of a soccer game. This author will not watch it. He is going sailing.

August 31, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0)

between Iran and utopia

At last, there is some serious political debate in Germany’s election campaign. On 13 August, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder denounced George W Bush’s “last option” - regarding Iran’s stubborn stance over its nuclear-energy policy - as “highly dangerous”. A serious topic. Finally, the public wakes up.

What does the opposition say? Well, first it bemoans another breach of Atlantic loyalty by Schröder; on second thoughts, it agrees: Europe should continue negotiating with the mullahs, but not under the threat of military intervention.

The end of the debate? Not really. The sad truth is: Iran’s nuclear bomb will become a reality, whether in five or in ten years time.

The high-spirited peace project of 1970, the international treaty on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, has shrivelled into a historical document of no relevance. Even according to the treaty, Iran could abandon it like a sub-tenant could leave his flat in the basement. All it needs to do is declare to the United Nations Security Council that the country’s “highest interests are threatened”. Bush’s bellicose pronunciamentos should suffice for this.

On nuclear proliferation, a universal sense of unity is gone. The pact’s final dissolution started in 2000, when the United States Congress refused to ratify the nuclear test-ban treaty – despite Bill Clinton’s agreement to it in 1996. This attitude contradicted Article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty.

It is true that American and Russian nuclear warheads have been significantly reduced on both sides to approximately 12,500. But it is also true that the US has embarked on new nuclear-research projects – not to mention a defense budget for 2006 of cosmic dimensions, approximately $500 billion.

Washington has also departed from the continuous UN conversations to maintain the non-proliferation treaty. Condoleezza Rice did not have the time to attend the May 2005 conference in New York. “A catastrophe”, said German foreign minister Joschka Fischer.

It is understandable and right that the leading superpower is not interested in enlarging the group of eight nuclear states. Yet, it would be even more important to continue or restart the disarmament process by setting examples. But the opposite is happening.

After the trauma of 9/11, George W Bush announced that no other nation would be allowed to catch up with America’s military advantage. This did not calm those nations, like North Korea and Iran, which ended up on the American list of “rogue states” or the “axis of evil”.

The dictators of these countries know one thing perfectly well: if Iraq had really been in possession of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam would still be sitting in one of his palaces. The lesson they drew from the Iraq war is easy to guess: a well-hidden but real nuclear weapon is sufficient to keep the nuclear superpowers at a distance. Because this is so, the spiral of nuclear armament will not be stopped – whether in North Korea or Iran.

The fear that a nuclear bomb could get into the hands of terrorists is justified. Preventing this would have needed a more serious policy of disarmament, and anti-terrorist strategies that have nothing in common with the helpless “war on terror” of the Bush government. His version has provided terrorists with a new strategic base in Iraq, which they did not possess before.

The long-term consequences of the invasion of Iraq become more and more visible. Assassins define the daily agenda in that ruined country. Religious leaders dominate the constitutional debate. The withdrawal of American troops is only a question of time – after Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s terms are over.

Washington’s military competence is not convincing enough to threaten the regime in Tehran. America’s “last option” war does not exist anymore. In this landscape of political ruins created by Bush, the next German government has to look for new strategic orientation and security.

It would be foolish to expect this from Washington. Which should leave European foreign policy as a beacon of sanity – but this is just another utopia, as once was the dream of total global nuclear disarmament.

August 17, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (3)

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 | Comments (4)

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