Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Campaign for Connoisseurs"?

The story of the TV-debate can be told with only few words: In the first half Frank-Walter Steinmeier scored with statements on social justice. In the second half, when the economic crisis was the main issue, Merkel was better than her opponent. In the end there was no real winner and it is not likely that this debate was a breakthrough for one of the candidates (see the article from Jan Techau).

Afterwards an observer, Heribert Prantl of Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the most important German newspapers, disagreed with the popular estimation that this year's campaign to the Bundestag is boring. He emphasized that the times of great ideologies are over. Therefore it would only be self-evident that campaigns are no longer dominated by questions of principle. Helmut Markwort from the magazine Focus added that the election campaign 2009 is a "campaign for connoisseurs".

Prantl is right. The election for the Bundestag is no longer a determining factor on the direction of Germany as it used to be. Meanwhile, there are nearly no differences between the parties in the essential goals. The only thing that is disputed is to reach these goals in different ways. Therefore, it is to be agreed with Eric Langenbacher, for whom this year's campaign does not really stand out as exceptional, because most Bundestag campaigns have not had elementary policy choices (see his article). However, this year's campaign is notable.

The aim of an election campaign is to convince as many people as possible of the own party and people within. Therefore, it is necessary - especially in a media dominated world - to acuminate the own positions, to wrap them in easy phrases and to polarize between the rivals. However a "campaign for connoisseurs" that concentrates on details that can only be understood by experts is no campaign. It is a deliberate strategy to prevent failure. For Merkel as well as for Steinmeier it was much more important not loosing the TV-debate than winning.

The real winner of the TV-debate was the opposition that was not invited to this "duel". Polls after the debate make clear that many people missed explicit and clear statements from both candidates. For them the duel confirmed the criticism of the opposition that it will be nothing more than a less exciting discussion between the chancellor and the vice-chancellor who have a lot in common. For these people it makes nearly no difference if Merkel or Steinmeier will be chancellor. It is not far-fetched that for these people the choice between them is the choice for the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, the polls after the debate asked which one of the candidates was better, not which one was good.

A campaign "light" without clear positions is no good for democracy. It is a campaign for an elite, not for the masses. Nobody expected a highly emotional campaign for the Bundestag - but it should at least be more than a "campaign for connoisseurs".

--Michael Weigl

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