Friday, September 11, 2009

A Boring Campaign?

The consensus among pundits and journalists is that the 2009 Bundestag campaign is one of the most boring and inconsequential ever. At first, folks seemed to think that this was a temporary situation that surely would change once the "hot" phase set in. But now, just over two weeks before voting booths open, it is pretty clear that things will not change.

Of course, the media have tried to make certain events and policies into hot-button issues. There was the Ulla Schmidt government car incident, bickering between the FDP and CSU, the results of the various Landtag elections a couple of Sundays ago with the boost that this may have given the Left Party, danger that Opel with its 25,000 jobs would be destroyed (now probably averted), and the botched airstrike in Afghanistan. Yet, none of these issues really took off and gained traction. Certainly, public opinion polls do not show any major shifts (rather some gradual changes).

One explanation for the nature of this campaign centers on the personalities of the main political players, especially Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, noting that both are relatively placid, even timid campaigners. Second-tier players like Guido Westerwelle, Franz Müntefering, Horst Seehofer, and Karl-Theodor Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg also have difficulty rousing a crowd--in stark contrast to Gerhard Schröder, Joschka Fischer or even Helmut Kohl (in his own way). Indeed, there appears to be a dearth of charisma in German politics today--with the exception of the Left Party leadership.

There are other explanations. One set revolves around the entrenched policy consensus. Germans are deeply satisfied with the social market economy deeply embedded in multilateral and European institutions and are reluctant to envision anything that might upset this idyll. (This is one reason why the "neoliberal" version of Merkel did so poorly in 2005). A corresponding risk aversion and a certain conservatism is dominant today. The shock and continuing uncertainty from the global financial and economic crisis are reinforcing this disposition--especially because Germans widely believe that this crisis was "made in America" (or Britain), that there was nothing fundamentally wrong at home and thus that there is nothing really in need of change.

Another explanation is that with the exception of the Left Party (but even it governs in much more centrist manner than its rhetoric implies) the other four main national parties are all invested in current policies. Take the (tepid) neoliberal reforms associated with Agenda 2010/Hartz IV--pushed through by the SPD and Greens, yet resonating with many core principles of the FDP and CDU/CSU. The same applies to Afghanistan, European policy, etc. Merkel has reached out to Germans with a migration background, thus occupying policy ground traditionally associated with the left. The only real policy differences revolve around secondary concerns such as nuclear energy and waste removal, or around methods to achieve broadly accepted goals (e.g., increasing employment, public financial health).

Yet, when was the last time that a major, hot button issue dominated a Bundestag election? I was thinking back over the decades and realized that most elections were not fought over major policy differences. Exceptions were the elections of 1949, 1969, and 1972--the latter largely fought over the new Ostpolitik of Willy Brandt and Walter Scheel. Certainly, there were contentious existential decisions--such as rearmament and joining NATO, the peace movement of the early 1980s, or the various treaties that created the European Union--but they did not come to dominate Bundestag campaigns. The unification election of 1990 was obviously important, but the overriding issue (unity) was not contentious. Obviously, there were low-level disputes in most years (like 2009) and often colorful, charismatic leaders (unlike this year) who could create campaign issues out of very little. No one was better than Schröder at seizing upon and exploiting a relatively minor issue (such as flooding in eastern Germany or opposition to a potential war against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which, let's not forget was still 6 months in the future). Yet, it is one thing to amplify a minor issue--it's another thing entirely to develop clear policy responses to pressing concerns and then campaign on them. In my view, most Bundestag campaigns have not had such policy choices, so this year's campaign does not really stand out as exceptional.

Moreover, why on earth would we want a dramatic campaign with major policy disputes and differences? Isn't it a mark of the stability and success of the Federal Republic shortly after the 60th anniversary of its founding that things are so damn boring? Doesn't it speak to the ideological maturity and pragmatism of the German parties that there is such a degree of consensus on most of the policy issues? I can't help but think of the (apocryphal) Chinese curse: "may you live in interesting times."

--Eric Langenbacher

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