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.

No comments:

Post a Comment