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.

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