Monday, August 24, 2009

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

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