Thursday, September 10, 2009

Disharmony Among Prospective Partners

From the perspective of an ordinary voter, the current election campaign is fairly boring because the outcome seems pretty obvious. On the one hand, the conservative and the liberal parties, CDU/CSU and FDP, would like to form the next government and may perhaps actually win the necessary majority of seats. On the other hand, there is no single party or other coalition model both willing and realistically able to claim power for itself. SPD and the Greens, who governed the country between 1998 and 2005, have lost so much popular support that they reasonably can't expect more than 36 or 37% of the vote. The only option that would bring them at least close to forming the next government again would be a coalition including the Left. Both have repeatedly ruled this out. So, their foremost priority is to prevent a CDU/CSU-FDP coalition - a rather sad priority and far from anything like an attractive policy project on its own that could fascinate the electorate.

If this wasn't bad enough, a closer look at the Conservatives and the Liberals may also astonish if not disturb many voters. Although Chancellor Merkel, the CDU's party leader, has declared the alliance with the FDP the only source of governmental stability for the next few years, the parties involved haven't yet behaved like partners but have quarreled about their reliability and competencies on an almost daily basis. Especially the CSU, the Bavarian sibling of the much larger CDU, hasn't missed many opportunities over the last weeks to complain more or less overtly about the Liberals, some of their policy proposals or the personal competencies of the party's chief staff.

These days, the major theme of their dispute is whether they can trust each other on whether the envisaged coalition is the only option to form the next government. The Conservatives and the Liberals are wary about the other not fighting strongly enough for the common victory as they indeed do have alternatives. Still today, the FDP's general secretary, Dirk Niebel, is cited on the party's homepage: "We are clear and the union [i.e. the Conservatives] is not."

The dispute between potential partners, which may seem surprising to the public, can be attributed to several reasons:

First, the joint victory of the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition seemed almost certain over the last months. As a result, it was logical for each party involved to try to increase its share of the votes at the expense of the other and thereby gain more influence in the future government. Particularly the CSU and the FDP are keen on outperforming each other.

Second, these two parties already form a coalition government in Bavaria since last year's state parliament elections which ended more than four decades of uninterrupted CSU rule. Of course, this party's first priority now is to restore its traditional role at the state level as soon as possible, and a good result at the Bundestag election would be an important step towards that aim.

Third, the FDP is more than irritated by the current popularity of the federal minister of the economy, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU), who is perceived as threatening the Liberal's claim to this ministry after the election, as the economy is one of their core policy domains.

Fourth, Angela Merkel needs to improve the CDU/CSU election performance as both parties only got 35.2% of the vote in 2005, a result that was viewed by many in her party as a disaster. Now, Angela Merkel has to prove that she's able to win elections (or at least to secure a share of the votes the party was used to for many years).

Fifth, and finally, the Conservatives disagree with the Liberals on some policy issues, for instance on how much regulation the finance sector needs or on the right balance between strengthening security measures and protecting civil rights.

From the point of view of CDU/CSU and FDP, these are five good reasons, at least, for them to attack each other and try to gain additional support in the election. However, too much discussion and disagreement between potential partners certainly does not attract many voters who will eventually question the parties' ability and willingness to form a stable government. So, it might be wiser for them to quit their dispute and seek the confrontation with their common opponents. And by the way, the latest polls published yesterday showed that CDU/CSU and FDP have lost support over the last days. They can expect 48 or 49% of the vote at the moment, maybe enough to build a government, but one cannot be sure. It will be interesting to see how they react now.

--Jörg Siegmund

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