Sunday, August 30, 2009

State Election Results no Boost for SPD

When it comes to assessing the impact of tonight's state elections in Thuringia, Saxony, and in Saarland on the national elections in September, five things seem to stand out at this early stage:

1. The Social Democrats are the party that remains under the biggest pressure to perform. Only at first sight do tonight's results look good for Steinmeier and the SPD. In Saxony, the party came out of the polls as only the fourth-strongest political force, making it lose its junior position in the state's government. In Saarland, the SPD, once more, lost a significant chunk of the vote. Only in Thuringia, where, for personal reasons, the CDU's incumbent prime minister was a hard sell, did the SPD gain votes. How this will translate into power remains to be seen. Nowhere can Steinmeier's party claim to have progressed anywhere towards its natural national option, i.e. a Red-Green coalition.

2. This leads to the key question for the upcoming four weeks: Where could Steinmeier potentially find a majority after September 27th? With Red-Green and Red-Yellow coalitions both being distant dreams, forming a coalition with Die Linke and the Greens is Steinmeier's only viable option to become chancellor. But with the party's repeated promise to not form a coalition with Lafontaine's party at the national level, the SPD has a huge credibility problem. It is unable to present to its voters a realistic path to the chancellorship. This sheds light on the SPD's huge dilemma: without re-embracing the left part of the political spectrum, it can't ever hope to regain a strong leadership position at the national level. At the same time, any rapprochement in the direction of Die Linke would cost the SPD indispensible political ground in the center. No surprise then, that neither Steinmeier nor Müntefering are able to explain to their voters or to anyone, how they intend to win the Battle for the Bundestag. They can't even define what winning means.

3. For the CDU, on the other hand, tonight's election were bad timing. While it was clear beforehand that Merkel's party would lose substantially in the Saarland and in Thuringia, tonight's bad numbers in both states make the seemingly invincible CDU look more vulnerable than it probably is. Even though the CDU came out first in all the votes, and even though nationally it still has all power options at its disposal, tonight created a negative psychology. This is why the party's chief ideologist and strategist, Roland Pofalla, looked nervous and pale while Steinmeier seemed to have a genuinely good time. For chancellor Merkel, this psychology, more than the actual election results should be cause for concern. It will be key for the CDU to not let this moment of perceived weakness turn into a protracted phase of bad karma. It should not be too difficult given the party's structural advantages, but Pofalla would have to play the game a lot more skillfully than tonight.

4. The FDP had a great night. The Free Democrats almost doubled their share of the vote in all three state elections, Moreover, in Saxony this success did not even come at the expense of the CDU, which is unusual. It seems that Westerwelle and his folks are doing their share of the work to make a CDU/FDP coalition possible. Mr. Westerwelle will let this be known to Angela Merkel again and again in the upcoming weeks.

5. Both in Saarland and in Thuringia, voter turnout increased. Looks like German democracy is more alive and kicking than some prominent doomsayers want us to believe.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Decisive Weekend?

This Sunday, August 30, the state parliaments (Landtage) of Saxony, Thuringia, and Saarland are elected. Only four weeks before the votes for the next Bundestag are cast, these state level elections of course draw much public attention and receive significant media coverage even in nation-wide newspapers and TV programs as they are perceived to be a testrun for what will happen on September 27 at the federal level. But can this Sunday's results really serve as an indicator for the outcome of the general election, maybe even telling us who will be the next chancellor? One may, at least, entertain some doubts.

To begin with, Saxony, Thuringia, and Saarland are rather medium-sized to small states, accounting for no more than roughly 10% of Germany's electorate. Thus, only 63 out of the total 611 members of the current Bundestag were selected in these three Länder. Furthermore, a party's strength usually differs significantly across Germany. If we look at the results of the Bundestag election 2005, the CDU/CSU won 35.2% of the national votes, but in Thuringia they only got 25.7%, in Saxony 30.0%, and in Saarland 30.2%. And the Left, to give another impressive example, was then elected by 8.7% of the German voters, being however much stronger in the three states under review (Saarland: 18.5%, Saxony: 22.8%, and Thuringia: 26.1%). Finally, voters have quite often drawn a distinction between sub-national and federal polls, even if they took place on the same day, casting their ballots for different parties.

Predicting the composition of the next Bundestag on the basis of this Sunday's results would therefore be nothing else than an ill-founded guess. Nonetheless, the parties' success or failure in the three state level polls will strongly influence the national election campaign until September 27.

Firstly, this campaign has lacked any controversial issue so far, any mobilizing debate, it has not yet gained momentum and is characterized by many observers as one of the most boring campaigns ever. So, in the absence of any substantial policy conflict, the outcome of the sub-national elections will certainly provide at least one interesting topic for both politicians and the media to talk and write about.

Secondly, none of the three state parliament elections will most probably see a clear winner. The CDU, until now governing with an absolute majority in the legislatures of Saarland and Thuringia, may defend its position as strongest party in these states but is said to loose up to 12% of the votes. If this is the case, the CDU can only stay in power by forming coalition governments in both parliaments. Moreover, it is not clear at all that these could be coalitions with its favorite partner, the FDP. Only in Saxony, the chances for such a coalition are slightly better, which would allow the Conservatives to get rid of its current regional ally, the SPD.

The Social Democrats, on the other hand, may well expect a larger share of the votes than in the last elections, at least in Thuringia and Saxony. This looks as a clear success at first glance -- a success that may prove to be a heavy burden soon. Because if the SPD quickly agrees to form "grand coalitions" with the CDU at the state level it makes it more difficult for the Social Democrats to explain why they would not like to continue the same coalition model at national level. The alternatives, SPD-Left- or SPD-Left-Green-coalitions, are even worse. In this case, intensive discussions will arise whether or not this could be an option for the future federal government, too. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the SPD's candidate for chancellor, has always rejected such considerations because he esteems it very difficult to reach an agreement with the Left on many political issues, especially in foreign and security, fiscal or social policy. But in case of coalition talks between SPD and the Left in one or more states, CDU/CSU and FDP will certainly question Steinmeier's political credibility (or his influence in his own party), causing serious problems for him and the SPD.

Even for the Greens, a substantial increase of votes and influence in state politics may prove a double-edged sword: negotiations including the Left will be criticized by the Greens' middle-class supporters, and any attempt to form a government with CDU and FDP -- called a Jamaica coalition for this country's flag being black, yellow and green, the colors of the three parties involved -- would be rejected by the Greens' many left-wing voters.

Hence, if the ballots are cast as expected in this Sunday's elections in Saarland, Saxony, and Thuringia, the following coalition talks will most likely be delayed until after September 27. Particularly the larger parties, CDU/CSU and SPD, will try in the meantime to benefit from the resulting political vacuum, mutually accusing each other of having failed to secure stable majorities. In consequence, the political debate until the Bundestag election will significantly intensify, although it'll be a controversy about power distribution, not about policy. This weekend is perhaps not decisive for the Bundestag election itself, but very important at least for the future of the electoral campaign.

Jörg Siegmund

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Healthy Embarrassment

Even though the election is only one month away, the campaigns seem to have difficulties getting into full swing. Instead of discussing differing plans for how the next government wants to lead Germany to higher employment and growth rates, two issues dominate the domestic policy debate in these days: One circles around the wasteful spending of a few thousand Euros through the potential misuse of the government chauffeur service and air fleet and a birthday party in the chancellery for the head of Deutsche Bank. The other focuses on saving Opel, the struggling German subsidiary of GM, for a couple billion Euros.

It seemed that the Opel story was already over (or at least postponed until after the elections) when the grand coalition backed the Canadian-Austrian maker of car parts MAGNA and the Russian SBERBANK offer with a 4.5 billion Euro state guarantee. The reason for this early commitment by the grand coalition was obviously to have this topic off the election agenda. By doing so they killed the competition for the best solution for Opel, the German car manufacturing industry, and the German taxpayers. Merkel and Steinmeier turned down the offer from RHJI - a financial investor - who asked for only 3 to 3.8 billion Euros in state guarantees and completely ignored the possibility of a structured bankruptcy that was briefly supported by the Minister of Economics Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. If nothing else, these alternatives would have saved the taxpayer a lot of money. But the wannabe entrepreneurs in the federal government were persuaded that the MAGNA/SBERBANK solution would save more jobs at Opel and they bet the people's money on it. By doing so, they join the casino capitalists that they publically despise.

It is no surprise that both Merkel (CDU) and Steinmeier (SPD) are furious about GM's refusal to quickly execute what they believe is right. And it fits in their past actions that they seem to believe it would help to call President Obama or Secretary Clinton in this matter to settle things out. Surprisingly, the German voter does not seem to care much about Opel's future. Therefore the FDP and the Green Party are the lucky winners in this since they (as well as the Minister of Economics Guttenberg) warned early on about the state's intervention and the early commitment to one bidder.

The fact that the grand coalition feels humiliated by GM's action might turn out to save Germans a lot of money if only for the reason that it postpones the decision about Opel's fate until after the election. Maybe with a cooler head and without the fear of losing a few thousand votes from Opel employees the new government will be able to re-evaluate this deal. This would make the developments of the last few days a very healthy slap on the wrists for the grand coalition.

--Tim Stuchtey

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Look at Schleswig-Holstein

After the Nazis had courted the exiled last German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II., to receive his blessings for their newly established regime, he famously quipped in a letter: "I tried to tell them damn fools that Germany can only be governed federally." Indeed, the provinces matter in Germany. So it makes perfect sense to have a look at the Länder every once in a while to understand what's really going on in the country. Having spent the last three weeks in my home state of Schleswig Holstein, I can truly say that one of the last things on people's minds is politics. Instead, in this beautiful region between the seas, Germany's northernmost, most news are local and most debates circulate around tourism and farming. Wheat prices are down but tourism is up, so it's a mixed balance. Any headline news for Merkel, Steinmeier, and the big issues? Not really.

This is remarkable for several reasons. Most importantly, voters up here will not only cast their ballots for the Bundestag on September 27th, but they will also, in an early vote, select a new state parliament (and thus a new state government). One might think that this rare double feature election show might electrify people, but it does not.

In some ways, the situation in Schleswig-Holstein mirrors the national one. Until recently, the state had its own version of the grand coalition that is governing in Berlin. But unlike Merkel and Steinmeier, prime minister Peter Harry Carstensen (CDU) and his SPD junior partner, Ralf Stegner, famously detest each other. The coalition never really worked, distrust was rampant, and earlier this year, Carstensen decided that he had had enough of it. In a smart tactical move, he decided to call early elections and managed to fix the date on the same day the national vote will be held. He clearly hopes to benefit from the CDU's current Merkel momentum and to form a new coalition with the Free Democrats. Judging from the latest polls, there is a fair chance that this plan might work out. But it's by no means a done deal. Just like in Berlin, the big parties could well end up forming another grand coalition.

Given the CDU's pretty much unchallenged position as the strongest party in Schleswig-Holstein, Carstensen's main enemies probably come from within his own camp. Carstensen's reputation as a folksy and "gemütlich" guy with a second-rate intellect has made him the subject of much ridicule from political enemies and friends alike. Rumor has it that Johan Wadephul, the CDU's front man in the state parliament, and Christian von Boetticher, the state's agricultural minister, are aspiring to replace Carstensen rather sooner than later. Some observers in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein's capital, even believe that one or both of them could stage an internal revolt right after the elections to catapult themselves into the prime minister's seat. One could easily dismiss all of this as petty talk. But given Schleswig-Holstein's notoriety for political backstabbing and scandal, one should never rule out a crudely crafted cabal in this state.

All of this could be regarded as piffle if it wasn't for the Bundesrat. The Schleswig-Holstein vote could have a profound impact on the next German government because it might be decisive for the power balance in Germany's upper chamber. The Bundesrat is the assembly of state governments, with representatives of these governments voting on most domestic legislative affairs. Whoever the new chancellor will be, her (or his) government's success will rely to a large extent on the balance of power in the Bundesrat. Schleswig-Holstein's is the last of four state elections between now and the end of the year. Despite it rather small voting weight in the Bundesrat, it could well prove to be decisive for the next federal governement's ability to enact reform legislation early in its upcoming term.

So you have all the ingredients for great political debate: two elections, personal feuds, party infighting, shaky majorities, tight polls, and even potential national impact. But none of this seems to stir the stoic northern people of Schleswig-Holstein much. Today's headline in the "Lübecker Nachrichten", one of the state's most important newspapers, runs like this (and I am not making this up): Washing hands to be made mandatory in schools to keep swine flu at bay.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

At the Crossroads: The State of the FDP

In current polls, the alleged "small" Free Democratic Party (FDP) is estimated to get up to 16 percent of the votes in the upcoming elections (Infratest dimap). Being a rather middle-class party, the FDP naturally benefits from the CDU/CSU's weakness by attracting disappointed conservative voters. However, the success of an economic liberal party in times of a financial crisis -- many call it surprising, some even cynical -- raises new issues: Is the strength of the FDP still caused by the weakness of the CDU/CSU or do the Liberals owe their success to their own societal ideas? What might indicate the FDP reaching a new level of importance?

First, the Liberals have received an increased share of the vote in the federal state parliamentary elections in 2008 and 2009, especially in Bavaria and Hesse, rising from 2.6% (2003) to 8.0% (2008) and from 7.9% (2003) to 16.2% (2009), respectively. Thus, they participate in the governments of these states, and, more important, they have become essential for statutes requiring the assent of the Bundesrat, Germany's second chamber. Although the Bavarian and Hessian FDP still benefit from the CDU/CSU's weakness, results of these elections give an opportunity to prove one's worth in government.

Secondly, the FDP has been strengthened internally, too: Unlike the "big parties" CDU/CSU and SPD, the FDP has not lost but gained new party members. In addition to higher capabilities, more members allow the party to exert additional influence in society. Becoming more important, the FDP may no longer be regarded as a mere "Mehrheitsbeschaffer" (majority engineer).

Finally, not only the political and societal influence of the Liberals but also the society itself is in flux, in particular Germany's attitude towards liberal values like freedom, individualism, and achievement. DeutschlandTrend August ( still indicates voters to give preference to "solidarity" (a classically social democratic value) over "achievement" (a liberal one). However, the voters' understanding of solidarity seems to differ from the one of the SPD: For example, when zu Guttenberg (Minister for Economic Affairs, CSU) was -- unlike the SPD -- against rescuing Opel and therefore estimated economical efficiency higher than solidarity, many voters agreed with him. Aside from economical considerations, the fact that zu Guttenberg's opinion was well received indicates a liberal attitude: Solidarity shall not be practiced as an end in itself. Thus, do not help those whose survival won't help you.

Summing up, the Liberals may expect an increase of votes in the upcoming election. But what do their new voters expect from the Liberals? A campaign slogan of the FDP says: "Deutschland kann es besser." ("Germany can do better.") "Better" means: Better than the grand coalition. According to DeutschlandTrend August, 94 percent of the potential liberal voters prefer a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition to the grand coalition. For many of them voting for the FDP is the only option to ensure that Merkel -- who is very popular -- remains chancellor without continuing the alliance with the SPD.

On the 20th of September, the FDP is going to hold a special party conference, where the Liberals' top candidate Westerwelle is expected to make a statement about probable coalitions. As likely as not, he will favor Angela Merkel.

In case of "Schwarz-Gelb" (CDU/CSU-FDP coalition), the Liberals will have to make their mark in politics over the next four years. Because if they don't take advantage of their situation, the success of the FDP might go down as a cyclical fluctuation.

--Oskar Fischer

Monday, August 24, 2009

Underestimating the SPD and the Overconfident FDP

Several interesting things have emerged since my previous postings. First, in reference to the SPD's dismal polling numbers and how Schröder did better than predicted on election day in 2002 and 2005, there is new evidence that the party's support may be underestimated again this year. According to an interview with renowned pollster Jürgen Falter, many of the undecided voters this year are SPD supporters. If a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition seems imminent, they could very well vote SPD to thwart this prospect. It appears that the Social Democrats could gain as much as 30% of the vote--7% more than they are polling, repeating the pattern of 2002 and 2005. Falter also thinks that if the election outcome seems close, the participation rate may reach 80% like in 2005, which will benefit the SPD. (See This issue of the "undecided" reminds me of the discussion in U.S. politics about "independents" and how recent research has found that most self-identified independents consistently lean towards one of the two parties, so that the proportion of true "independents" or swing voters is much, much smaller than polls indicate ( In any case, there is even more reason to be skeptical towards the Sonntagsfragen results--and perhaps more reason to think that a continuation of the grand coalition is not that far-fetched.

That said, there is much evidence that the Greens are much closer to the CDU and the center overall than was previously the case. Conventionally, the Left-Right spectrum went Left Party (PDS)--Greens--SPD--CDU/CSU--FDP--right radicals. Now, some political scientists are flipping the position of the Greens and SPD. Of course, there is also the current Black-Green coalition in Hamburg--as well as numerous examples at the local level (Kommunen). There is also the so-called "Jamaica" coalition--CDU/CSU-FDP-Green, which might also be possible, even likely, if the SPD witnesses a late surge in electoral support. Given the tensions between the FDP and especially CSU in recent weeks over the allocation of cabinet portfolios, campaign tactics (that the FDP allegedly is running a campaign for all-important second votes), and the policy commitments of a possible "bourgeois" coalition (tax policy in particular), such an outcome appears much less of a sure thing. I also suspect that the FDP's strident neoliberalism will scare away a significant number of voters at the last minute, sending them to the SPD or Greens. (See Der Spiegel)

Moreover, perhaps the CDU needs to heed some political lessons from other countries--even Italy! There was a long tradition in that country of having "oversized" coalitions--i.e., parties were included that were not necessary for a majority. This was a way of reducing the "blackmail" potential of any one coalition partner. Maybe the CDU should welcome the prospect of a Jamaica coalition to thwart the more radical demands of the FDP--which according to one study a few years ago was the most successful party in Europe over the postwar period in terms of implementing its policy agenda. This is unsurprising seeing as it held the balance of power from 1949-1956, 1961-1966 and 1972-1998, and, in the context of the old 2 ½ party system was the "only game in town" for any senior coalition partner.

After 11 years in opposition--its longest such spell since the Federal Republic was formed--the party is keen to co-govern again. Yet, it is already noteworthy that center-right parties are doing as well as they are in light of the on-going economic and financial crisis, but the FDP is really pushing the envelope. I think this tactic will backfire either with voters and/or in coalition negotiations. At a minimum, the party needs to understand that it is not the only coalition option for probable winner Merkel--and really needs to not overplay its hand. Otherwise, "Jamaica" might be its punishment.

--Eric Langenbacher

A New Star in the Ministry of Economics

A new star was born when Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg became Minister for Economics and Technology in February 2009. A rather young man from the CSU in Franconia (Bavaria), who by then was mostly known only to politicos in the foreign and security policy arena, was appointed to this post right in the middle of a global crisis. Within only a few months he became Germany's most popular politician, more popular than Chancellor Merkel, a position that in the polls is usually reserved for the foreign minister.

His success is not based on the public rescue of companies that were recapitalized with tax payer's money only to go down two years later. Instead it seems that Germans like his straightforwardness and the fact that he sometimes goes beyond party lines when he believes this is necessary. Also his fresh face seems to fill a gap for people who otherwise see politicians as grey technocrats who are steered by their party and engage only in ritual fights where many have difficulties to see the differences between the various party positions. In particular he seems to fill a gap within the CDU/CSU.

After the disappearance of Friedrich Merz the CDU/CSU left a market oriented approach to economic policy completely up to the FDP. The business wing of the CDU/CSU was frustrated with the policy of the Grand Coalition and with the leadership of their party leader Chancellor Merkel. Consequently many of this important and influential part of the conservative party immigrated to the camp of the FDP. Also the chancellor was the only person with which the public associated the CDU and after the retirement of Edmund Stoiber also with the CSU. Than came Guttenberg.

Guttenberg became a huge asset for this election campaign. So much so that the CDU put him on its campaign poster even though Guttenberg is not a CDU member. A visitor to Germany is able to see the smiling face of the new star all over Germany now, with the logo of the CDU and only a small footnote that states his actual party affiliation with the CSU. (A picture of this poster can be found on this blog in the election 2009 photos).

Needless to say, the sudden success of Guttenberg is an annoyance for the SPD. Consequently they look for a way to reduce his popularity. But until today their attempts show only little success. The supposed scandal of his ministry's decision to outsource the drafting of legislative bills to international law firms turned out to be a measure that is also taken by other ministries. Thus it can not be used against Guttenberg personally. Furthermore, the content of a strategy paper which was written by the staff of his ministry and which was leaked to the press seems to do him little harm. Although some of the proposed policies are the opposite of what the CDU/CSU promises in the campaign and others would undo measures that the SPD sees as its achievements, there is no outcry in the media or in the public. Partly this could be because the proposed policies are neither new nor seen as particular drastic but are a mild attempt to please the pro-market party wing that immigrated to the FDP.

In the end Guttenberg could become a problem for the FDP. A Minister of Economics with such popularity will be hard to push out in a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP. The ministry that traditionally was in the hands of the Free Democrats could stay with the young man from the CSU. Who would have thought that when he came into office in February 2009?

--Tim Stuchtey

Friday, August 21, 2009

Atmosphere instead of issues

If you are looking for an issue that dominates the campaign for the German Bundestag 2009, you are searching in vain. There is not a single one, but many different ones. Families wish for a more family-friendly environment, farmers hope for better prices of their produce, senior citizens complain about the low level of pensions, young people hope for an improvement of conditions at universities and more apprenticeship training positions and so on. Everybody desires for something and everybody expects politicians to fulfil their desire. Solely a strange, almost schizophrenic atmosphere is manifest: On the one hand there is the belief that the German government needs new ideas and on the other hand there is the desire for stability and reliable policy without experiments in times of a worldwide financial crisis.

This situation entails a real challenge, especially for campaigners of the bigger catch-all-parties. When there is a polarizing issue, the mobilization of partisans and supporters is easy. However, in the current case everything matters – as well as nothing. Not the candidate with the best arguments will win the election in the end, but the candidate people confide in. However, faith can hardly be created in a short campaign. This is a matter of time and suited candidates people can trust.

Due to this reason the Social Democrats are confronted with a problem. Their campaign is not focused on their top-candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but on issues. They try to get attention with posters that are supposed to show their competence for classic social democratic needs such as employment, education, health. Although the campaign is professional and the design of the posters pleasant: Is this good enough to attract voters, too?

The campaign-strategy leaves no doubt that in their view the opponents of the SPD are not the Conservatives or the Liberals, but the Socialists (Die Linke). Both parties compete for the same voter base. But middle-class voters can hardly be won with such a strategy. Most voters do not believe that the SPD is competent of solving economic problems. The SPD-campaign will not unteach them.

The SPD is mocking: We have all the issues; CDU has nothing except Angela Merkel. However, “nothing” seems to be more powerful than SPD-arguments. While Steinmeier is a controversial candidate for the public as well as the own partisans, chancellor Merkel is very popular, even more in the public than in her own party. Of course she is not “everybody’s darling”. In case of a disastrous election result, there were a lot of people who would be glad to overturn her. Nevertheless, as long as she is successful, Merkel is the undisputable leader of the CDU. Therefore, the CDU campaign is totally focused on her as a person – and on Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the young, dynamic secretary of Economic Affairs, who is also particularly popular. While the SPD promotes their slogans with pictures of everyday people, the CDU is linking catchwords with well-known faces from the Cabinet: Guttenberg (catchword: economy), von der Leyen, secretary for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (family), Schavan, secretary of Education and Research (education), Aigner, secretary of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (agriculture), Schäuble, secretary of the Interior and Jung, secretary of Defence (security).

This campaign of the CDU focussed on members of the Cabinet at the expense of issues is not inventive. However, it is evidence for self-confidence, firmness and competence in content and people. It is the campaign of a leader, not of a challenger. It fulfils people’s desire for stability to a greater extent than the campaign of the SPD does.

Currently it seems that the election for the Bundestag will follow the same pattern as could be seen in the election to the Bavarian state parliament one year ago. The CSU lost its 50+x-majority not so much due to a bad campaign but rather because of the negative atmosphere within the population. For years the CSU had provoked with unpopular decisions. As a consequence, this loss of trust could not be healed within any election campaign. Maybe this time this is SPD’s faith.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Racist Campaign Posters and the Monocultural Bundestag

Returning to the issue of campaign posters, controversy over one that I previously mentioned is continuing. The poster in question comes from the Greens in a western German town (Kaarst near Düsseldorf) and depicts a naked African woman from behind being held by a white woman. The text says: "The only reason to vote black" (Der einzige Grund, schwarz zu wählen). From one perspective, this is a provocative and witty attempt to campaign against the CDU (black)--and reminds me of the CDU's own 1972 "Black is beautiful" poster. Despite the local party's attempts to justify the ad--citing the Greens' commitment to Weltoffenheit and tolerance, as well as its tradition of "sassy" ideas (See Critical Witness blog) --many individuals and groups such as Brothers Keepers, a well-known transnational anti-racism (musical) group have denounced the adds as "using and strengthening racist and sexist associations" (See Brothers Keepers).

This shows how sensitivities about ethnicity and race are heightened in contemporary Germany--and, at the least, a more wide-ranging discussion about these issues may transpire. Moreover, the continued lack of voice that this large segment of the population has in German politics might be addressed. According to the 2005 microcensus, fully 19% of the German population today has a Migrationshintergrund (migration background, see

But, there is certainly a lot of progress that must be made. The out-going Bundestag had a grand total of 11 (eleven, elf, onze) members with a Migrationshintergrund (See here). That constitutes exactly 1.80% of all members of the body (612 in the 15th Wahlperiode). Again, less than 2% of the lower house, which is supposed to represent "the people," shares the characteristics of almost a fifth of the German population. This segment of the population is larger than the population of the old East Germany.

Come to think of it, not only is the Bundestag disproportionally composed of folks without a migration background (I don't know what the correct term is today--white?), but it is also still pretty male. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, 32.2 % of the Bundestag is female--not as equal as world leaders Rwanda (56.3%), Sweden (47%) or South Africa (44.5%), but at #19 better than Canada (22.1%), France (18.2%) or the U.S. House of Representatives (16.8%, tied with Turkmenistan) (See Still, there is a lot that needs to be done to make the Bundestag look more like the country.

--Eric Langenbacher

SPD - from dream team to nightmare

Earlier this year, the SPD's leading pack looked like a dream team: Steinmeier, the uncharismatic but competent and modern third-way Social Democrat as the candidate for the chancellory. Given the Germans' knack for uncharismatic leadership, not such a bad choice, you would think. Then, as his most important companion, Franz Müntefering, the party's rather rustic, old-style, plain-speaking chairman. Perfectly suited to court traditional workers and party loyalists. Grouped around Steinmeier and Müntefering you would find not only respected and battle-tested cabinet ministers such as Peer Steinbrück and Ulla Schmidt, but also a bunch of younger, more left-leaning heavy-weights, among them Andrea Nahles, labor minister Olaf Scholz, and Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit. And, best of all, they would all play in concert, forgoing for the time being on the Social Democrats' favourite pastime, infighting. Add to this some fresh faces from state cabinets and the back benches of parliament, and Steinmeier's posse looks like a formidable team. More than that, it looked like an ideal team, tying all relevant wings of the party together, covering all important issues.

But instead of slowly working the poll data up, this team has managed to drive the figures down for the SPD. The latest data published today by Allensbach pollsters show yet another loss for the SPD which is currently expected to garner about 23.5 per cent of the vote. What happened?

First of all, Steinmeier was unable so far to (a) create an image of someone who really wants to be chancellor, (b) to create an urge in voters to replace Mrs Merkel with him, (c) to energize his own folks, (d) to translate his popularity as Foreign Minister into any kind of political clout, (e) to at least convince people that he would be the better problem solver. According to Allensbach, those believing that he would be more competent than Merkel in dealing with the financial and economic crisis decreased from 14 per cent last December to 9 per cent in August. These are abysmal numbers.

Secondly, Franz Müntefering has all but disappeared from the political stage. His recent attempts to insert some sharpness into the debate by accusing the chancellor of being unconcerned about unemployment evaporated without any visible effect. Instead, it increasingly seems that the old "Münte" magic, a mixture of stubbornness, cheekiness, and simplicity is a spent force. Whenever he makes himself heard, it sounds like his statements are coming from somewhere far away on the outside, not from where the game is being played.

Thirdly, the SPD's cabinet ministers don't work well for Steinmeier. Ulla Schmidt, in charge of the health portfolio, has turned from a campaign asset into a nightmare with a seemingly never-ending scandal about the private use of her official service vehicle. Although this scandal is blown way out of proportion, it's a gift that keeps on giving for Merkel's CDU and the tabloid press. Merkel has also managed to neutralize finance minister Steinbrück by making him her trusted aide during the financial crisis. This nicely added to the already existing image of him being a less reliable SPD party soldier, and made him almost useless during the campaign.

And finally, the SPD's young guns have decided to wait for their own turn four years down the road. They have realized that Steinmeier is a losing ticket and that the party will almost naturally fall into their hands after the elections. They are not openly undermining the campaign, but most of them are keeping their powder dry while attempting to not be too closely associated with what looks like the party's past.

It looks increasingly unlikely that this team will be able to create the momentum to change the SPD's fortune so late in the game. And it becomes more and more likely that the post-election SPD will look very different from the pre-election one -- no matter whether the party will be in or outside government.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Another Sunday, Another Sonntagsfrage

It's Sunday and, thus, it seems appropriate to delve into another Germany political tradition--the Sunday question (Sonntagsfrage): "If the Bundestag election were next Sunday, for which party would you vote?" All of the most recent results continue to see a bare majority (51%) for a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition, mainly because the FDP is up by 2% (according to ARD Deutschlandtrend, The SPD continues to hemorrhage support, now down to 23% (or even 22% according to some sources). The train wreck that is the SPD this year is simultaneously sad and entertaining to watch--but that is a topic for another day.

Just like in the U.S., polling has become a veritable obsession in German election campaigns with numerous companies and organizations providing their findings for the German electorate and pundits to mull over. But also like the U.S.--remember the exit polling debacle from 2000--German pollsters were rather imprecise the last time around. All Sonntagsfragen predicted that the CDU/CSU would poll about 40-41% on election day--instead they garnered only 35%, barely more than the SPD. That is a pretty significant overestimation, outside of the commonly accepted margin of error range (2-3%). Academics and pundits have been speculating about this ever since and, unsurprisingly, many are questioning the accuracy of the polls this time around.

So, what happened in 2005 that might or might not happen again this year? One potential problem is the accuracy of samples--with the propensity of older people to respond more frequently than younger folks (and thus over-estimating the support of the CDU). Another growing problem in the US (and probably Germany) given the dependence on landlines by polling organizations, is the rise in cell phone-only people ( who are generally much younger than average. It is possible that this segment of the German electorate was under-sampled before the 2005 election (and this year?).

The most common explanation for the polling problems in 2005 was the terrible campaign that the CDU waged--the whole Kirchhof debacle (announced as the next finance minister but having advocated extremely unpopular flat taxes). Basically, the consensus is that Merkel and the CDU campaigned too far to the right and scared many voters away with unpalatable neoliberal reforms at the last minute. It should be noted that despite 15 years of party and public service, she was considered to be a campaign novice and relatively untested. She is a much more savvy and experienced politician in 2009.

We should also not forget that the SPD was still led by Gerhard Schröder in 2005--like Bill Clinton, probably the most charismatic politician of his generation. Despite everything, he was able to increase the SPD's share of the vote by 1% over pre-election polling prognoses. We should not forget how he "came from behind" also in 2002 to win the election. As late as August 2002, the CDU/CSU was winning 40% to 34%--and the actual result was a tie at 38.5%. ( That year, Schröder was able to use the floods of the Elbe river in the east to his party's advantage (as well as splits in the CDU/CSU between CDU party leader Merkel and CSU leader and Chancellor Candidate Edmund Stoiber)--and in 2005 he mercilessly attacked the CDU over the Kirchhof/tax saga and other issues. Obviously, the absence of a leader like him with such shrewd instincts and communicative skills will hurt the SPD this time around.

Schröder brings up two final thoughts. First, eastern German voters have been extremely volatile since 1990. Predicting the eventual outcome there--becoming the key "swing" states with every eventual chancellor since 1990 winning there--is especially difficult, but highly important. Clearly, Schröder's use of the floods in the east and then his attack on flax tax proposals in 2005 were meant to curry favor in that perpetually depressed region. In any case, especial scrutiny of campaign dynamics in this region is always warranted.

Finally, despite all of the talk about how boring this election season is, the campaign with all of its vicissitudes, scandals, missteps, etc., does matter, and like 2002 and 2005 may very well be decisive on September 27th--regardless of what the Sonntagsfrage indicates.

--Eric Langenbacher

Friday, August 14, 2009

Election without campaign

It's a German tradition that elections for the Bundestag take place in late summer (normally end of September). Therefore, there is usually a lack of attention for election campaigns due to summer holidays which end only shortly before the election. Furthermore, the German parliamentary system also contributes to short-term campaigns. While in the US primary elections and party conventions charged with emotion increase the tension over a long period, Germans are accustomed to only short-term campaigns. But this year, with only seven weeks to go, the indifference for the election is especially significant.

If the media did not speak about the forthcoming Election Day, nobody would know about it. Superficially, it seems that the parties have decided to cancel campaigning for this year. However, the truth is that this atmosphere of non-campaigning is part of the campaign; or at least not the worst case scenario for the campaigners.

For the CDU/CSU, party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, everything is fine. The results of the latest polls are no longer as they used to be years ago. But "the years of plenty have passed", 35 to 38 % seem to be the current potential. Therefore, the Christian Democrats have no interest in an offensive campaign that could mobilize not only the own partisans, but also others.

For the second largest party in Germany, the weakened Social Democrats (SPD), everything seems hopeless. The party elite underlines the fact that there is enough time for a fulminate catch-up race like 2005, when Gerhard Schroeder, who was apparently the underdog candidate, was nearly voted chancellor once again. But nobody buys into these evocations of the past anymore. Their candidate of 2009, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was never chancellor before, is not as charismatic as Schroeder. Steinmeier's opponent is no longer an inexperienced and pale woman from East-Germany as in 2005, but a popular head of government. Neither the public nor the partisans themselves believe in another sensation. Many of them even hope not to win the election but to be able to start in the opposition all over again. Especially the party on the ground cannot be motivated for a committed election campaign. Efforts of the party elite gain no traction.

For the remaining smaller parties FDP (Liberals), Grüne (Greens) and Die Linke (Socialists) an uninspiring campaign of the larger parties is helpful because it does not lure voters away from them. Furthermore, the smaller parties are the winners of the ongoing crisis of the people's parties. All of them have high hopes to achieve the best results at elections for the Bundestag ever. Why, for god's sake, should they start a larger and more emotional campaign?

The campaign will gather momentum in the remaining weeks before the polling day. Then the parties will try to win the undecided. But one thing is almost clear: The election campaign 2009 will not be remembered as history-making, but rather as an "election without campaign". At least unless something extraordinary happens.

-- Michael Weigl

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Plan D, or How Germany Will Return to Full-Employment (According to Frank-Walter Steinmeier)

It seems that Germany's political parties have copied many things from the scrap book of last year's Obama campaign. One thing in particular that the Social Democrats and their candidate for the chancellery Frank-Walter Steinmeier took over is the promise that his policy will produce 4 million new jobs by 2020. In his PLAN D (or Deutschland-Plan) Steinmeier promises full employment, a goal that has not been mentioned in German politics for some time. He outlines particular industries in which these jobs will be created: 2 million Jobs in the Green Economy, another million in the health care sector, half a million in the creative sector (jobs in culture, the arts, music industry, or web design, etc.), and another half million in other service sectors. It is as simple as that plus a few more public investments in infrastructure, education, and research.

It seems that Germans have lost confidence in themselves and their political and business leaders, as well as in the idea that full employment combined with high social standards is still possible in times of globalization. Unemployment is the price they seem to believe one has to pay when having a tamed market economy in this world of capitalism and managed economies.

Right after being publicized the Deutschland-Plan was heavily criticized not only by political oppo-nents but also by economists and commentators. It is pretty hard to foresee how a certain policy will affect particular industries and how many new jobs will be created as an effect from such policies. It is even harder to foresee the negative effects a subsidy for one industry will have on others. In order to reach full employment one does not only need new jobs but additional jobs; therefore the net effect is what counts. Also the SPD - unlike the Left Party - knows that jobs are not created by governments but by businesses. It is therefore hard to see how a party that recently undid parts of its own 'Agenda 2010,' which was pushed through by the previous SPD Chancellor Schröder with the help of his then-chief of staff Steinmeier, can actually reach the goal of full employment. As the second in command within the grand coalition, Steinmeier agreed to take back some of the meas-ures that had begun to diminish the high structural unemployment in Germany. Furthermore, the minimum wage the SPD has pushed through for some industries and promises to widen if elected is no measure that will support the goal of full employment. Consequently it seems that the German public is not buying Steinmeier's Plan D. Even worse, they seem to ignore it.

Whatever one might think about the concrete plan by Steinmeier, setting a goal for full employment is important for the German debate. Other parties should not only criticize the plan but should explain whether and how their policies can reach full employment or openly admit that they do not seek to reach that goal. There is no reason why a reformed social market economy should not be able to create enough growth within the next decade to offer everyone a job who seeks work. Steinmeier's Deutschland-Plan should open the debate on how to get there. Instead it seems that within the biggest economic crisis since WW II Germans are surprisingly incurious about the campaigns only six weeks before the election.

The complete text (in German only) of "Die Arbeit von Morgen - Politik für das nächste Jahrzehnt" can be found here.

--Tim Stuchtey

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Look at Hamburg for the Future

Much has been made of the decline of Germany's major Volksparteien (catch-all-parties) in recent years. This week's Economist is reporting on what has been the subject of much debate in Germany for quite a while: what future for the German party system (and thus for the entire political system) with CDU (Conservatives) and SPD (Social Democrats) in steady, though somewhat unevenly distributed, decline. It seems inevitable that in times of less stratified societies, less pronounced identities and less entrenched ideologies the Volksparteien might be downgraded to "normal" party status. Strategists in both major parties have long been pondering about how to reposition their organizations to avoid being marginalized, and maybe even to make use of new emerging political constellations that were once deemed impossible. Currently, it looks as if the CDU is closer to a solution than the SPD.

To understand why, its useful having a look at one of the most interesting political experiments taking place in Germany at the moment: the current coalition of the CDU and the Green party in the city-state of Hamburg. This rich merchant town, one of the most affluent in Europe, known for the typically Hanseatic open-mindedness and a civic culture that stems from a long tradition of self-governance and sea-faring, could well deliver the blue-print for coming co-operations on the federal level. But it also illustrates the pains that are coming with fundamental change in the political setup of the country.

Two important developments have made the formerly unthinkable coalition in Hamburg possible: The gentrification of the Green party and the liberalization of the Conservatives. Both developments are visible on a national level, but it is no surprise that the place for their first meaningful political marriage is the urban, liberal environment of protestant Hamburg. The Greens have, over the years, shed their image as a club of tree-huggers, embracing instead modern, liberal market- economics with practical environmentalism. Their highly-educated young voters embody the new social ideal: pro-business but environmentally aware, idealistic in a rather pragmatic, hands-on-manner, interested in good schools, good food, good careers, good living and good causes, internationally-minded, techno-savvy. They are not even peaceniks anymore, having learned their Kosovo and Afghanistan lessons well. In sum, the Greens cannot simply be counted among the leftist parties anymore. They are a much more diverse, subtle bunch these days.

The German Conservatives, on the other hand, have, over the years changed the one thing that long separated them from the life-style of the 21st century: their socially conservative policies on families. Having for long time stuck to the awkwardly outdated 1950s models of what made a good family, under Chancellor Merkel, new flexible laws have redefined the ideas of how parents share the work and the costs of raising children. In recent months, the CDU has even moved its positions on the issue of gay marriage, a development that will most likely continue in the next few years. With social conservatism on the way out and an economic policy far away from any kind of "neo-liberalism", you can see how the Conservatives don't look so conservative anymore. Some old-style CDU followers might not appreciate this course, though most of them have to admit that it has served the party well.

Naturally, these transformations have also been painful for both the Greens and the CDU. In Hamburg, the coalition almost crashed when the Greens had to accept the building of a much-needed but coal-fired power plant which the CDU insisted on. The CDU, in turn, had to quell an internal rebellion over educational reform pressed for by the Greens which many Conservatives deemed unacceptable. But the coalition held, thanks to the over-whelming integrating skills of Ole von Beust, the CDU's openly gay mayor, and thanks to the attractiveness of the new strategic possibilities created by this alliance. If the CDU could permanently add the Green party to the list of potential coalition partners on the national level, this would greatly increase the strategic options of both the CDU and the Greens.

Meanwhile, the SPD is stuck with the dilemma of not knowing what to do with its defectors on the left. Theoretically, the only way for the SPD to ever return to a position of structural majority, the party must either re-unite with Die Linke or at least join forces with them on a more or less permanent basis. This seems impossible as long as ex-SPD chairman Oakar Lafontaine, hated as he is in his old party, runs Die Linke and as long as the SPD is still committed to the welfare reforms of the Agenda 2010. Both can change of course. The battle within the SPD is already on over the post-election course of the party. But (at least) two questions remain: Would the conservative wing of the SPD accept a new left-leaning course of the SPD? One of their most prominent representatives, Wolfgang Clement, formerly the Prime Minister of Germany's biggest state of North-Rhine Westphalia, has already left the party in protest. And secondly, how attractive would a new united left be for the gentrified Green Party?

It all looks pretty good for Angela Merkel's CDU. Not just in the short run, but potentially also in the long run. Let them pundits squabble about the decline of the Volksparteien. The new CDU and the Greens could well redefine what that term means.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Campaign posters are back!

In the early months of 2008--in the midst of the Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a gay German (or German gay?) friend of mine invited me out for drinks at a bar in his neighborhood in Washington. It was a special night--when only show tunes are played--campy fun. But on this evening, the bar had a special guest--some performer (whose name escapes me but she recently was in "Little Shop of Horrors" or maybe the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" on Broadway). The lights dimmed and she got up on the counter (this place doesn't do performances normally), belted out a song and then asked everyone to contribute to the campaign of Hillary Clinton (the supporter of gays and lesbians, as she put it). My friend turned to me and said "this is why I love America."

He was on to something on one level. German political campaigns don't have the same slick, overly produced, (show) business vibe as in the U.S. But, they have their own charms--to this observer at least. First, I think it is wonderful that the parties actually issue formal electoral platforms and statements and that the media and voters actually mull these over and partially base their choices on these documents. American politics have not had this kind of old-school gravitas for quite some time.

Even better, German campaigns are witty--especially evident in campaign posters--that have a long and artful tradition in that country. This year we have 60 years of Bundestag elections to celebrate (See the comprehensive coverage from, yes, wait for it, Bild Zeitung). One of my favorites from 1994 (I actually stopped by the old CDU party headquarters in Bonn to get one) was the "Auf in die Zukunft ... aber nicht auf roten Socken" (Into the future, but not in red socks)--with an image of a solitary red sock on a clothesline. This was a way of demonizing the postcommunist PDS and the prospects of an SPD-PDS coalition government. (See Der Spiegel). Also memorable was the CDU's "Black is Beautiful" poster from 1972 and the famous "Keine Experimente, Konrad Adenauer" from 1957. The Left has some doozies too--but in my opinion, the SPD's artistry pales in comparison to the CDU over the years. One good one from 1980 said "Viele Blumen aber keinen Strauß" (Many flowers but no bouquet)--obviously trying to co-opt the Greens and criticize CDU/CSU chancellor candidate, Franz Josef Strauß.

This year already has not disappointed. My favorite (thus far) is CDU candidate Vera Lengsfeld's poster showing her and Chancellor Merkel in cleavage-revealing décolletage--with the caption "wir haben mehr zu bieten" (we have more to offer). See The Telegraph. Although criticized by some feminists and others, no one seems to have a problem with the amount of flesh revealed. This poster would be absolutely unthinkable in the still prudish US of A. Actually, I quite like the CDU's series of posters "Wir haben die Kraft ..." (we have the strength) that highlights ministers like Wolfgang Schäuble, Ursula von der Leyen, and current favorite Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, but culminates in a smiling image of Merkel. Another provocative (but also cliché) poster comes from the Greens who have portrayed a naked African woman's buttocks being held by a white woman--apparently indicating the party's support for same sex rights and marriage. (Der Spiegel). Die Linken also have some noticeable ones--bright red with simple ideological messages such as "Reichtum besteuern!" (tax wealth!). (Die Zeit). Talk about a blast from the past! I wonder if this 19th century rhetoric will resonate in the 21st century? The SPD (again) disappoints.

--Eric Langenbacher

“Expectations matter”: The case of Ulla Schmidt

The unveiling of Steinmeier's SPD-”Kompetenzteam” (shadow cabinet) was overshadowed by an embarrassing episode involving Ulla Schmidt. The Federal Health Minister apparently used her staff car during vacations in Spain, where it was stolen. What was the evaluation of the public of this incident and the resulting exclusion of Ulla Schmidt from the Kompetenzteam? What were the impacts on the current polls?

The key point is not whether Schmidt was right or wrong, but the context: From the public point of view, her party has not been able to solve the most important problems (unemployment and social injustice), despite being a governing party for eleven years. Thus, SPD is not expected to solve the problems presented by the financial crisis.

It does not matter if Ulla Schmidt is actually to blame for the loss of her staff car, just as it does not matter if SPD is actually to blame for the current problems. “Expectations matter”: Schmidt's carelessness met the expectation that social democrats are not able to handle public property well.

When the institute Forsa released new poll data (08/05) indicating that the SPD will receive only 20% of the votes in the upcoming elections, a loss of 3% compared to Forsa's last poll (07/29), Ulla Schmidt was accused for the worst result in 2009. However, for a long time SPD has been judged by the press and by various polls (like DeutschlandTrend July 2009) to lack leadership and competence on issues like economy and social justice.
Despite the fact that Schmidt’s “car scandal” was rather a bagatelle, the incident has been evaluated as an affirmation of social democratic weakness and incapability. “Schmidt” fulfills topicality and fits in with present expectations.

Summing up, the current situation of SPD is problematic because every step is perceived against the background of negative expectations. It is to be seen if Steinmeier will be able to change these preconceptions during his “Sommerreise” (summer tour).

--Oskar Fischer

Monday, August 10, 2009

It's the economy, stupid.

One mantra in U.S. politics is that electoral outcomes are greatly conditioned by the state of the economy (the Carvillian "it's the economy, stupid"). I don't think that German elections are as closely coupled to the economy as in America--in the "grand coalition state" it is more difficult to disaggregate responsibility than in a presidential system with single party control of the executive branch--but the state of the economy and the federal government's management thereof certainly will affect voters' choices. This is especially true in 2009 in the midst of the worst financial and economic crisis in living memory. How will the Merkel government's economic management affect the outcome of the Bundestag election on September 27th?

On the face of it, the situation is still bleak. GDP contracted by 6.9% in the first quarter of 2009 and overall the economy will contract by 5-6 % this year. Unemployment is starting to creep up, currently at 8.3%. Moreover, the stimulus packages passed in late 2008 and early 2009 (according to a Brookings study representing about 3.4% of 2008 GDP) will create budgetary, inflationary and fiscal challenges down the line. It is interesting to note that this is one of the larger packages cross-nationally (dwarfing those of France or the UK).

Despite these efforts, the German government was vociferously criticized for not doing more. Especially influential New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, lambasted the grand coalition's overly timid and presumably short-sighted response (Der Spiegel article). Merkel's seeming unwillingness to support greater domestic and EU stimulus spending or bailout packages for several struggling East European countries earned her the derisive nickname "Madame Non" in France and elsewhere (RealClearPolitics article).

But then by the high summer of 2009, things have begun to look up. The U.S. economy and stock markets stabilized. China was back to double digit growth rates. GDP contraction in Germany slowed and the economy may grow again by the third quarter of 2009. The unemployment rate will continue to increase, but probably only marginally. Business confidence is up and manufacturing is recovering. The heavily-hit car makers are even returning to full production and employment. Consumer spending is holding constant.

Moreover, despite all of the criticisms of Merkel's policies, a study from the Boston Consulting Group concluded in late July that the German stimulus package was the most successful in international comparison (Der Spiegel). Particularly the "cash-for-clunkers" (Abwrackprämie) program-- subsequently much copied in the U.S. and elsewhere--has boosted consumption and has helped the struggling auto industry. In addition, the still-too-often underestimated chancellor has been adept at blaming the global downturn on the Anglo-American neoliberal model, tapping also into rather widespread anti-Americanism. Merkel has brilliantly relegitimized Modell Deutschland or Rhineland capitalism, the core component of any German national pride. Of course, as the most recent issue of the Economist makes clear, the worst may have been averted, but there are still deep structural issues that will have to be confronted--labor market rigidities, over-reliance on exports (and the concomitant weakness of domestic consumption), and bureaucratic hindrances to starting new firms.

But these deeper issues will not affect this year's election. From a short-term economic perspective, things are looking good for Merkel and her CDU/CSU on September 27th. But, the complexities of the German electoral system, the possibility of more bad economic news, surprises and scandals in the campaign, and Merkel's record of lackluster campaigning generate a lot of uncertainty. Certainly, President Obama's confidence in her re-election is premature (Reuters).

Friday, August 7, 2009

Leadership makes a difference, especially in times of crisis

It is a well known phenomenon that people feel the need of a strong and steady leadership in times of a crisis. In this sense the current crisis may open a window of opportunity for the election campaigns of the governing parties, first and foremost for Chancellor Angela Merkel. A large majority is satisfied with Merkel’s performance in these days. When it comes to the so-called “K-Question” (Kanzlerfrage) she is clearly in the lead: If people had the chance to decide directly who should become the next chancellor, 62 percent would vote for Merkel, but only 25 percent would prefer Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Politbarometer July 2009).

Merkel has achieved a reputation to be a strong leader, at least in the view of the broad public. This development is quite interesting, if one remembers the fact that public opinion was rather sceptic about her abilities to lead when she came into office. Moreover, she had to defend herself against criticism on her leadership style throughout her chancellorship. Prominent figures from her own ranks repeatedly doubted her ability and competence to lead the government. And what might be even more important: The parliamentary party as well as the party on the ground felt more and more uncomfortable with her adaptive leadership style.

Nevertheless Merkel’s leadership seems to be strong in comparison to the leadership deficit of the SPD. Despite the fact that Steinmeier is widely respected in his role as minister of Foreign Affairs he still lacks a profile as a party leader and the potential chancellor. The perpetual struggles over the leadership of the SPD have severely damaged the image of the party. In a sense, the personnel seem to be worn out after more than ten years in government. This is one of the reasons why Steinmeier presented a “campaign team” with new faces.

In the end, much will depend on Merkel’s ability to keep the distance to Steinmeier throughout the campaign. Her lead seems more than comfortable at this point, albeit it is not all clear to what extent the CDU/CSU will benefit from her popularity. Another come-back of the SPD – comparable to the 2005 election campaign under Gerhard Schröder’s leadership – is not very likely. Although a lesson can be learned: The race will not be over before election day, September, 27th.
Manuela Glaab

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Struck's Inconvenient Truth

Let me start my part of this blog with a small but significant piece of good news for German foreign policy. Peter Struck, former defence minister and currently the still influential head of the Social Democrat's parliamentary group in the Bundestag, said in an interview for Berliner Zeitung today, that Germany's military engagement in Afghanistan could well last for another decade. While this is not ground-breaking news per se, the mere fact that he is saying this is important for several reasons.

First of all, the statement comes from a leading Social Democrat. It is thus one of the rare public reminders coming from this widely pacifistic party of German geopolitical interests and the price that needs to be paid to pursue them. Struck served as defence minister when Germany entered the Afghanistan theatre, and it was him who coined the now proverbial sentence that it is Germany's security that is at stake at the Hindu Kush. Struck has been harschly criticized for this smart and true sentence ever since, but in today's interview, Struck re-affirms its continuous relevance. All this might sound small and trivial, but within the German context it is very welcome support for all those who argue for a more strategic debate in this country and for a more pro-active German foreign policy. Especially when it's coming from the left of the political spectrum.

Secondly, the statement means that Struck's party, the SPD, won't be able to repeat its very successful 2002 and 2005 election strategies. In 2002, then chancellor Schröder, in the context of the Iraq debate, skilfully triggered the widely-held pacifist feelings of Germans by trouncing George Bush and portraying Merkel's CDU as Bush-friendly war-mongers, thereby securing a last-minute election victory. In 2005, SPD party strategists used the same strategy, only in a subtler form, to undermine Merkel's foreign policy credentials, again with some success. While it was never fair, it was certainly legitimate during an election at the time. But most importantly, it did not serve the German foreign policy debate well. Populist scare-politics prevailed over sober strategic analysis. Struck's remark today makes it all but impossible for the SPD to pull the same trick again - even if the security situation in Afghanistan turns bad before September 27th.

Finally, Struck's statement comes at a crucial time. Not only did he speak at the beginning of a federal election campaign. His words also come at a time when Germany is visibly concerned about its role in Afghanistan (with plans for increased post-election contributions being hedged at the chancellery), and at a time when in Brussels, experts are working on a first draft for NATO's new strategic concept. Both Germany's military contribution in Afghanistan and its intellectual contribution to the new strategic concept will have a major impact on the future of Germany foreign policy and thus its standing in the world. Struck's statement serves as a reminder that in both cases, Germany must prove that its current inward-looking approach to the world is neither realistic nor intellectually credible.

It is doubtful whether Struck's contribution will usher in a more realistic German security and foreign policy debate. Germany still needs to cover substantial ground to reach that point. But given the circumstances and the timing, his are remarkable words. To be fair, it was surely easier for him to say these thing now that his political career is drawing to a close. Struck won't return to the Bundestag after the elections and won't hold any significant office within the SPD after September. Unfortunately, one is tempted to say.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Will the Lying Continue?

The grand coalition started four years ago by revealing a lie. While during the campaign the CDU/CSU spoke the partial truth to voters and proposed an increase of the value added tax (VAT) by two percentage points, the Social Democrats promised not to increase the VAT at all if they were elected. While I assumed back then that the political compromise would be to increase the VAT by 1 percent, the result of the coalition talks was an increase by 3 to 19 percent. The public and the opposition were stunned and enraged by this move.

This time around tax policy is again a major topic in the election campaign. And again the six (including the CSU) major parties differ substantially in their beliefs as to what is necessary for the following four years as well as in their approaches to the problem. Again the VAT and income taxation are the major issues under discussion. I would not be surprised if by the end of this year we will have déjà vu and find ourselves as voters again surprised with a revelation of tax plans that have little to do with what we are promised during the current campaign.

In short the positions of the parties are as follows:

The FDP and the Left Party say what one would expect them to say: The Left wants to finance its generous increase of various social and public investment programs with higher taxes, especially from those who they feel are the rich (53 percent on incomes above 65,000 Euros per year), and also demands a reintroduction of the wealth tax (5 percent on private wealth above 1 million Euros).

The FDP reintroduced its plans for a complete makeover of the income tax code - which is in fact a jungle of regulations hardly anybody understands - and a general lower taxation of people's income (with only three tax rates of 10 percent, 25 percent and 35 percent). To guarantee a sound budget they want to close most loopholes that the current complex tax code provides and the party promises a rigid cut in subsidies and other government expenditures.

The Green Party also favors a simpler tax code though they like to see taxation being used to give incentives for more environmentally-friendly behavior. They ask for an ecologic tax reform, taxing everything that they feel is harmful to the environment. To overcome the current financial and budget crisis the Greens want a onetime taxation of private wealth.

The Social Democrats (SPD) are by and large satisfied with the way things are and therefore seem to be the true conservatives. They argue that in the current economic situation an increase of taxes would poison the little bit of growth prospect there is for 2010 while at the same time the federal budget situation does not allow for any lower taxes, especially after all of the rescue plans and stimulus packages of the past year. However, they promise a little bit of easing for incomes under 52,882 Euros and increase the top tax rate (which is paid for an income above 52,882 Euros) for higher spending for education.

The CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU needed a while to figure out what they want in the field of tax policy. The CSU announced early that they would favor tax cuts while within the CDU it took a while until they agreed. One part of the party is - like the SPD finance minister - fixated on the federal budget. They rightly fear that the 3 percent Maastricht criteria will be out of reach for the years to come assuming that drastic measures on the expenditure side of the equation are political suicide. The other part of the CDU is already uneasy with the level of state intervention the federal government has shown under their leadership. They want to regain the title of the heirs to Ludwig Erhard (and thereby regain votes from the FDP) by strengthening private households by leaving them with more of their earned income. In practice this means they are considering lowering the VAT for certain industries and increasing the income level above which the highest marginal tax rate is applied to 55,000 Euros and later to 60,000 Euros.

Besides the details of the respective tax reform proposals, the big question that is being discussed all around the country is whether taxation must be lowered because of the need for more private consumption and growth or if taxes have to be increased in order to stabilize the budget. Even among economists this is a controversial issue. The fact that the tax code must be simplified is not. But I guess this is a bit like the need for universal health care in the U.S. Even though most people believe it is desirable, it was politically impossible to achieve. Sometimes a big crisis offers also a political opportunity for reforms that seemed to be impossible before; maybe now is the time for health care reform in the U.S. and a substantial tax code reform in Germany. That would be a positive surprise and not déjà vu of another campaign lie.

--Tim Stuchtey

Monday, August 3, 2009

Welcome to The Battle for the Bundestag 2009

Welcome to The Battle for the Bundestag 2009 – AICGS’ Election Blog on the German federal election. We are excited to provide you with this platform for insights into the campaigns, knowledge of the issues, and discussion of the election. Several bloggers and one photo blogger will bring you updates from Berlin and the United States on the run-up to the German election; once the votes are tallied, they will provide additional analysis of the results! The bloggers will cover those issues most pertinent to the election debate in economic policy, foreign and domestic policy, the view from across the Atlantic, and campaign politics. Be sure to visit our website for additional election analysis. We encourage you to check back often and welcome your feedback. We are looking forward to a lively exchange on the blog and in the German election campaign!

Best regards,

Jackson Janes
Executive Director